Four Groups of Duke Faculty Receive Collaboratory Grants for Research on Issues Affecting North Carolina and Global Communities

Yadkin River, NC; solar panels; summary ejectments per square mile in Durham; Bass Connections research in Madagascar.
Yadkin River, NC; solar panels; summary ejectments per square mile in Durham; Bass Connections research in Madagascar

Four groups led by Duke University faculty have been awarded Collaboratory grants for research into pressing local and global challenges.

“From investigations in our own backyard into evaluating water safety and lessening the impact of evictions on child development, to research aimed at increasing solar energy efficiency and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases on a global scale, these proposals speak to our dedication to improving the human condition,” said Provost Sally Kornbluth. “Supporting faculty research is an essential way to advance the fundamental learning and discovery at which we excel, and those investments provide ripple effects that benefit teaching and service.”

The grant period is one year with a possibility of renewal.

Drinking Water Contamination in North Carolina: Water Use, Human Health, and Going Beyond GenX

  • Principal Investigators: Heather M. Stapleton, Nicholas School of the Environment; Lee Ferguson, Pratt School of Engineering and Nicholas School of the Environment

Changes in water availability, increases in pollution, and policy regulations are resulting in substantial challenges for water protection, and consumers bear the social and economic burden when drinking water sources are contaminated. One of the most relevant threats to public drinking water in the U.S. is a class of chemicals called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). These chemicals made local headlines in 2017 when news stations reported contamination of drinking water wells with “GenX” in New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

In 2018, the state legislature appropriated several million dollars for testing all surface waters across the state. Despite the broad documentation of PFAS contamination, no funding was included to evaluate health impacts on affected communities or to identify sources.

This collaboratory will build a water model to help identify potential point source(s) of PFAS contamination, and underlying variables influencing the water levels, in the Piedmont region. In addition, the researchers will examine the relationship between water levels and biological PFAS levels, and conduct geospatial analyses to determine if poorer health outcomes at birth are associated with areas of higher PFAS contamination. The group will also investigate effects of PFAS on birth outcomes using an animal model, and integrate environmental and human health knowledge into management and policy recommendations regarding water use policies.

Minimizing the Influence of Air Pollution on Solar Energy Production

Particulate matter, including air pollution and dust, has dramatic impacts on both climate and human health. It also reduces solar energy production by about 15% on a global average and as much as 40% in some regions. This current loss in efficiency is estimated to account for the loss of power output valued in the tens of billions of dollars annually, dramatically affecting cost effectiveness and renewable energy access. The problem is not well understood and few studies are available that quantify the impacts, although it will become increasingly important with solar power production expected to increase globally by nearly four-fold over the next 20 years.

This collaboratory will assess the regional impacts of air pollution on solar energy production, determine cost-effective strategies to minimize the influence of particulate matter on solar energy production, and develop and test novel surfaces and coatings that hold great promise in minimizing the influence of deposited particulate matter on solar energy production.

Evaluating and Mitigating the Impact of Evictions and Other Housing Insecurity Issues over Health and Child Development in North Carolina

  • Additional Team Members: Jillian Hurst, School of Medicine; Sarah Dickerson, postdoctoral associate, Sanford School of Public Policy; graduate and professional students

In the U.S., 10-15% of households experience housing insecurity. For families with young children, this number is much higher. Lack of secure housing is associated with a host of health consequences including psychological distress and exacerbating chronic conditions. For children, housing instability is associated with increased problem behaviors, respiratory conditions, infectious diseases, and decreased access to healthcare. In Durham, 16% of children aged 0-8 live in a household where housing costs exceed 50% of the household income—leaving few resources for other needs such as food, clothing, and transportation.

This collaboratory brings together a multidisciplinary team to study how housing insecurity affects children’s health and education and what policy solutions may be implemented to mitigate the associated harms. To inform evidence-based policies and help communities promote population-level health, this study will assess patterns of population movement in Durham County and the relationship of these patterns with housing insecurity, examine the effects of housing insecurity and evictions on the education of children across North Carolina and in Durham County specifically, and investigate the effects of housing insecurity and evictions on children’s healthcare utilization and health status in Durham County.

Identifying Infectious Disease Transmission Pathways for Improved Population Health and Pandemic Preparedness

  • Principal Investigators: Charles L. Nunn, Evolutionary Anthropology, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences; Randall Kramer, Nicholas School of the Environment; James Moody, Sociology, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences; Linfa Wang, Duke-NUS Medical School
  • Additional Team Members: Alma Solis, Ph.D. student in Evolutionary Anthropology; other graduate students

The title of a recent high-profile Commentary in Nature proclaimed, “Pandemics: Spend on surveillance, not prediction.” If resources and time were unlimited, scientists would exhaustively sample wild animals, domesticated animals, and humans, and they would fully investigate the ecological contexts in which transmission occurs; all of these foci are crucial for predicting disease emergence. Given the reality of limited resources, new approaches are needed to deepen understanding of disease transmission pathways from animals to humans.

This collaboratory will use new surveillance tools and apply analytical frameworks from network epidemiology to disentangle the drivers of disease transmission at the human-animal ecological interface. The group’s research takes place in rural Madagascar. Members will collect and analyze blood samples and expand socioeconomic data collection; this research will provide crucial pilot data to increase the competitiveness of external grant submissions, while also providing opportunities for students involved in the research to publish early findings and present those findings at conferences. In addition to collecting data in the field and shipping samples to Singapore for analysis, funding will enable us to develop new analytical pipelines for network epidemiological analyses, including with graduate students on Duke’s campus.

About the Collaboratory Grants

Part of the Together Duke academic strategic plan, Collaboratory grants provide support for groups of faculty seeking to provide solutions to targeted problems in three areas:

  • Energy and water resources
  • Race, religion, and citizenship
  • Population health.

Over time, these thematic areas will likely evolve. Project funding ranges from $20,000 to $200,000 annually. The offices of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies and the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs oversee this seed grant program.

The first round of Collaboratory grants was announced in April 2018. The six groups and principal investigators were Decisions, Risks, and Governance of Geoengineering (Mark Borsuk, Jonathan Wiener, Billy Pizer, Drew Shindell); Innovations in Infrastructure (Megan Mullin, Amy Pickle); The Duke Polarization Lab (Christopher Bail); Understanding the Transforming U.S. South (Kerry L. Haynie, John Aldrich, Linda Burton, Adriane Lentz-Smith, Mark Anthony Neal, Donald Taylor); The Duke University Precision Health and Wellness Initiative (Geoff Ginsburg, Susanne Haga); and A Road Map for Affordable Healthcare in the 21st Century (Nimmi Ramanujam).

Nicholas Institute Launches Duke Environmental Impacts Fellow Program

Apply by Oct. 1

Deadline: October 1, 2019

The Duke Environmental Impacts Fellow Program (EIF) is a new, professional development opportunity for Duke PhD students keen on making a high impact in their careers. This pilot program aims to fill a gap in traditional PhD training by providing an opportunity for students to consider the full variety of potential career paths they might follow, including nonacademic or nontraditional academic positions. The program will offer trainings focused on leadership, teaching, communication, and engagement to enhance students’ critical thinking and leadership skills. At the completion of the program, participants will have a broadened view of their career options, and be prepared to be thought-leaders inside and outside the academy.

Learn about the EIF program purpose, traininglogistics, and enrichment activities.

Application and Selection Timeline

  • Applications due: October 1, 2019
  • Notification of selected fellows: by November 8, 2019
  • Fellow acceptance: by November 15, 2019
  • Announcement of fellows: Week of November 19, 2019
  • Initiation event: November 21 & 22, 2019
  • Program duration: January – December 2020


Students who have completed at least two full years of any Duke PhD program will be eligible to apply.

To Apply

Go to the EIF application page at and follow instructions.

What a Fulbright Scholar Learned about the Nicholas Institute’s Interdisciplinary Approach


Throughout April, the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University hosted Dr. Paul Bolger, manager of the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork in Ireland.

Bolger is a 2019 Fulbright Irish Scholar who is investigating how interdisciplinary approaches are being utilized at four American universities—Duke, Arizona State, Columbia, and Cornell—to address global sustainability challenges.

During his month in Durham, Bolger conducted surveys and interviews with Nicholas Institute staff and Duke faculty and administrators to get their perspectives on the institute’s work.

Bolger took a few minutes toward the end of his stay to talk about his research and what he learned about the Nicholas Institute. Below is a transcript of the conversation. It has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What interested in you studying interdisciplinary research at other sustainability research institutes?

There’s a long-held viewpoint that the global sustainability challenges that we’re facing—such as climate change, water resources, plastic pollution—that they require the cooperation of scholars from different disciplines to solve them. So for example, for climate change, that might be atmospheric modelers; it might be hydrologists; it might be energy modelers; it might be sociologists and lawyers. Each would take a piece of that jigsaw and solve it. The idea is that you get a more robust outcome when you’ve got lots of different disciplines thinking about that problem.

If you’ve only got one discipline, you get a very singular viewpoint. The difficulty with that is that if you are trying to implement new solutions and technologies that there could be multiple issues with it that have not been considered.

A good example here is the introduction of new renewable technologies such as wind farms or solar power. The engineers might think, “This is fantastic. This is going to solve all of our energy problems.” But of course, politicians might not like it. Communities might not like it if they don’t want wind farms in their backyard. And there might be lots of other opposition. So we need political scientists, we need the lawyers, and we need sociologists and psychologists studying how we actually implement those technologies in a real-life situation. So that’s one of the basic advantages behind doing interdisciplinary research, i.e., making research outputs more robust and relevant.

The key thing about interdisciplinary work—as distinct from what’s called multidisciplinary—is that the scholars work together in an integrated manner. They don’t go off and do their own pieces in silos and come back at the end and say, “Here’s my piece.” They work together in a process like coproduction. Each of them has to have a slight understanding of what the other person is doing so they all come to a common understanding of what the problem is and what the solution might be.

In your research so far, what are some of the common themes that you’ve seen in terms of how these institutes apply an interdisciplinary approach to their work?

If I could back up a little bit, I should say why I’m interested in institutes specifically. Universities tend to have very few vehicles for integrating different disciplines. Most universities tend to be set up along the classic disciplinary lines. You’ve got the sciences; you’ve got the humanities, medicine, arts, and business. There can be very few ways that you can cross those particular silos. An individual can.

There’s nothing stopping someone in the school of sociology from reaching out to someone in the school of engineering. That happens lots of times. But it’s a kind of ad-hoc process.

But that formal mechanism might not necessarily be there?

Correct, so the institute is a formal structural mechanism for doing interdisciplinary research within a university. Many of these institutes have a reach right across the university and have a remit to bring scholars together to work on particular topics. It might be around poverty; it could be around social justice; it could be around sustainability.

So I’m interested in sustainability research institutes. If they all have a mission to do interdisciplinary work—the ones I’m looking at—the question I’m asking is, “What does that look like in reality? On a day-to-day basis, what does it mean to do interdisciplinary research?” What I’ve been doing within the institutes is trying to look under the hood and to understand that a bit more.

I’ve been doing that in two ways. One way is through surveys of staff and affiliated faculty where you ask them what their understanding of interdisciplinary work is, how they think the institute is facilitating that, and how they might be able to do better. And I’m supplementing that with interviews with staff, leadership, and leadership within the university of how they feel the institute should be facilitating it.

The position that I would be coming from would be that the role of institutes has been somewhat overlooked for too long. If you look at the literature on interdisciplinary work, centers and institutes don’t feature that often even though many of these centers have been around for 30 to 40 years. So I am interested in seeing what is the reality of the interdisciplinary work of institutes on the ground and how does that vary by university.

Each university is context specific, so the Nicholas Institute is quite different from the Julie Ann Wrigley Institute that I visited at Arizona State University. So what difference does that make?

How does the Nicholas Institute differ from the other organizations that you’re studying and your own institute?

It’s somewhat different. Part of the reason for that is that the Nicholas Institute is a very externally facing organization. It is very good at looking at what is on the horizon in terms of sustainability and environmental policy. It works closely with policy stakeholders to understand what their issues are, not today, but what might be an issue in two to five years’ time and to tease out that with policymakers and then to bring that back into the institute and consider how the institute might bring its considerable intellectual resources to engage with that particular problem.

There are very few organizations who have the capacity of the Nicholas Institute to do that because you really need to have a strong skillset in engaging with policymakers, be able to develop trust amongst them, talk their language, and to help them to think about what the issues might be in the future. That’s a capability that is not very visible, but I think Nicholas Institute staff are very good at doing that.

And then of course, they have their own staff to work on these problems; for the university, the key thing is that they can also bring faculty from Duke schools in to support, to bring an additional level of expertise to solve those big policy issues.

That’s a different type of organization to some of the other institutes I am visiting, which are not so policy attentive but may be more internally focused on bringing faculty together in interdisciplinary teams. For the Nicholas Institute, it is probable that the external mission of doing policy-relevant research is at least as important than the internal mission of doing interdisciplinarity.

From what you’ve seen, what is the Nicholas Institute doing well in its interdisciplinary approach?

Well, I should say that they’re doing a fantastic job. The survey results show that at least 30 to 60 percent of the project work which the Nicholas Institute is doing involves another member of faculty from a Duke school. So the institute is doing a huge amount of interdisciplinary work, and that’s taken a long time to build up.

I think they’ve had a lot of success with working groups, which is where they bring a group together around key themes such as ecosystem services or water. That working group consists of Nicholas Institute staff and affiliated faculty. Even though the working groups may wax and wane in the number of projects they are undertaking, the community of collaborators within the working groups still exists, and they can come together again depending on what project might come up.

Now the institute has the Catalyst [Program] grants, which are a great initiative. The grants bring staff and faculty together to work on key projects of mutual interest. They give a relatively substantial amount of seed money to develop a project which might have the potential to grow and leverage a lot more money externally. I think it would serve the Nicholas Institute well to track the success of those kind of collaborations in terms of what happens to the seed money and what works and what doesn’t work in terms of facilitating interdisciplinarity so that the institute could direct its money in the most productive direction in the future.

Based on your own experience and the research that you’ve done so far, what do you see as opportunities for the Nicholas Institute to improve its interdisciplinary approach within the Duke community?

If I was to suggest one thing the institute could do—and this would actually be as much for the university as the institute—is that doing interdisciplinary work can be challenging, and it takes more time and resources than disciplinary research. There’s a skillset associated with it, and that skillset is not always very obvious.

There’s a disciplinary language barrier to get over. There’s a common understanding of the problem. I think that—this is not just true of Duke, but also true of other universities—those groups have to go through the painful process of understanding what that process is every time. It’s a black box. What happens at the moment is that every time the team finishes its project, the knowledge is lost because you’ve got to start all over again the next time.

So I think it would be really useful to have facilitators in the room to help those teams to work through the process. Interdisciplinary research is a process. There’s a way to do it. It doesn’t have to be a set of strict rules, but there certainly is a guiding framework for how to do good interdisciplinary research.

So I think it would be really beneficial for Duke and for the Nicholas Institute—and other institutes—to have staff on call when a big project starts off that involves a number of disciplines. You could call on someone to sit in and particularly guide the commencement of that project so that it gets off to the right start and that it doesn’t fall at the first fence. That’s really about capturing the cumulative knowledge of how to do interdisciplinary research. So that would be one of the things that maybe Nicholas and Duke could think about.

Originally posted on the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions website

Graduate Network Catalyzes Research on China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Kickoff event.
Kick-off event for the Riding the Belt and Road network on September 7, 2018

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a mammoth undertaking that seeks to establish a “new Silk Road” linking China with over 60 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Last spring, five Duke graduate students received a Duke Support for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks (D-SIGN) grant to establish Riding the Belt and Road. The group aimed to ignite a discussion among students and faculty members on multiple facets of the Belt Road Initiative, with a focus on environmental impacts. Below are excerpts from their report.

Catalyzed by a D-SIGN grant in 2018-2019 and housed at the Duke University Energy Initiative, the Riding the Belt and Road network we built together has ignited discussions among students and faculty members on multiple facets of BRI, including its historical and geopolitical background, financial arrangement, business practices and impacts on environment, energy, and development in general.

Our network complements and extends existing BRI efforts led by faculty members, especially from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, supports students to attend BRI workshop and conferences, and offers the platform for students to present and get feedback for their own research projects related to BRI. Our network leverages the existing website on the Belt and Road Initiative hosted by the website of the Center for International & Global Studies (DUCIGS).

“The purpose of building a network, unlike a research project, is to provide support and create linkages. On a cutting-edge topic like BRI, there are many ongoing research projects across the campus – both at Duke and at DKU, but researchers – graduate students and faculty members alike – do not always have the time and efforts to be connected and to benefit from others’ perspectives. Our network fills this gap and connects the dots.”

Yating Li, Ph.D. student in Environmental Economics

Our network raised awareness and initiated conversations around the BRI issues within the Duke community by providing a platform to share research progress for Duke graduate students and faculty members and by inviting world-renowned researchers to give talks and hold discussions with students.

Mia Bennett.
Mia Bennett

On September 7, over 60 students and faculty members attended our kick-off event. The presenters included Jackson Ewing, Lydia Olander, Elizabeth Losos, Seth Morgan, Sara Mason, Erik Myxter-lino, Xiaolan You, Zainab Qazi, and Yating Li, covering a wide range of perspectives including roads and power plants, ecosystem impact, a framework to understand what leads to greener projects, and the implication of machine learning techniques to identify infrastructure.

With DUCIGS, we cohosted a lunch conversation with Charles Stevens, cofounder of The New Silk Road Project.

We hosted Mia Bennett, Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong. She discussed how the BRI can be studied from space using remote sensing, specifically nighttime-light imagery.

With support from the Nicholas Institute, we brought together Ariel BenYishay from the College of William and Mary and Rebecca Ray from Boston University to discuss how we can construct a sustainable future.

“The opportunity to meet Dr. BenYishay and Dr. Ray was particularly beneficial for me and other graduate students who interacted with them. Dr. BenYishay discussed his work with AidData at length and spent time fielding questions from students both during the panel and afterward in an informal graduate student session. This event is one example of the ways in which Riding the Belt and Road was instrumental in helping me form research questions related to sustainable infrastructure and rural development. The network has been a key sounding board as I have explored the data requirements for my research and contributed to policy reports on the impacts of roads on forests.”

Seth Morgan, Ph.D. student in Environmental Policy

In October 2018, the network supported three graduate students to attend the Duke-DKU International Symposium on Environmentally and Socially Responsible Outbound Foreign Direct Investment, hosted at Duke Kunshan University, China. A set of events over five days addressed how to understand and plan for China’s vast increase in infrastructure investment abroad, especially for projects that are part of the BRI.

“My participation at the conferences gave me professional contacts and access to cutting-edge researchers in the field. Furthermore, the opportunity assisted greatly in my master’s project that focused on Chinese state-owned enterprises’ internationalization process in the Belt and Road era.” He adds, “Being a part of Riding the Belt and Road D-SIGN group was one of the main highlights of my graduate school experience as it expanded my intellectual capacity to look at my specific subfield of research interests through the lens of disciplines I had limited exposure to prior.”

Erik Myxter-lino, research assistant at the Nicholas Institute and graduate student at NC State University

Building on the discussion during the October workshop, an international institutional collaboration – Gateway for Sustainable Infrastructure – was proposed by Elizabeth Losos and Lydia Olander from the Nicholas Institute. Our network supported a follow-up workshop on April 17 to further the discussion on areas of collaboration among key participants around the world.

“We could have held a series of seminars and conferences on our own, but involving the graduate students from the Riding the Belt and Road D-SIGN network greatly enhanced our programs in several ways. Most immediately, the D-SIGN group actively promoted the programs and encouraged their classmates to participate. But the group also helped mold our research directions by active involvement in discussions of research and workshop agendas, selection of speakers, and critiques of masters projects. These graduate students were full colleagues in every sense. I look forward to continuing to work with many of them while they are still at Duke and hopefully beyond.”

Elizabeth Losos, Senior Fellow at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

The network supported one group masters project, one individual masters project, and one Ph.D. dissertation chapter.

  • Jiaxin Guo, Mya Nwe, Zainab Qazi, Shuyi Zhou, “Assessing the Environmental Sustainability Potential of BRI Countries under the Five Connectivities Framework”
  • Erik Myxter-lino, “State-owned Enterprises within the Belt and Road Initiative: Conducting the State’s Business or Conducting Business with the State’s Assistance?”
  • Yating Li, “Environmental Impact of Overseas Coal-fired Power Plants Financed by China”

“The BRI network at Duke has been an invaluable source of mentoring for our Master’s Project. Our group focused on assessing the environmental sustainability potential of BRI recipient countries conducive to keeping the BRI projects green vis-à-vis the Chinese overseas investments. In particular, our Master’s Project used China’s Five Connectivities framework to assess the varied capacities of BRI participants as countries with distinct sociopolitical and economic contexts and the subsequent bilateral ties with China. We hope that our project serves as a primary investigation into environmental sustainability assessment of the BRI countries and a stepping-stone for further case studies along different regional corridors.”

Zainab Qazi, Master of Environmental Management student

For the leaders, network participants, and the Duke community, our Riding the Belt and Road Network has been a gateway to understand the multiple facets of the Belt and Road Initiative. Our network’s success in this regard has been driven by the support of faculty members and staff from at least four key institutions: the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, the Center for International & Global Studies, the Duke University Energy Initiative, and the International Master of Environmental Policy (iMEP) at Duke Kunshan University.

In particular, we are grateful for the guidance and support provided by our faculty mentors: Professors Billy PizerElizabeth LososIndermit GillKathinka Fürst. We would also like to acknowledge research contributions by Fanqi (Vicky) Jia and Yingyu Fu. We are confident that, moving forward, the network we built will continue to facilitate discussions around BRI at Duke, galvanize interests in sustainable infrastructure, and support evidence-based planning of large-scale infrastructure projects.

Nicholas Institute Awards Catalyst Funding to Six Duke Research Projects

Catalyst grantees.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University has awarded funding to six research projects for Fiscal Year 2019–20 through the institute’s Catalyst Program.

Now in its third year, the Catalyst Program aims to build on the Nicholas Institute’s mission by increasing engagement with Duke faculty to incubate and advance new partnerships, enhance policy-relevant knowledge, and create innovative policy solutions based on new creative synergies.

Green, Healthy, and Affordable Housing for Resilient Communities

This precatalyst planning grant will be used to build a team that will design a project to explore and propose policy solutions to two converging crises: affordable housing and climate change. The larger project will focus on creation of specific policy proposals and transactional models for green, healthy, and affordable housing for homeowners and renters in low-income/materially poor communities.

Collaborators: Kate Konschnik, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions; Ryke Longest, Environmental Law and Policy Clinic; Andrew Foster, Duke School of Law; Paige Gentry, Klein Hornig LLP

ClimateCAP – The Nexus of Climate, Capital, and Business in China

In March 2018, Fuqua EDGE organized and hosted a successful event called ClimateCAP: The Global MBA Summit on Climate, Capital, and Business — in partnership with 15 other top-tier business schools from the U.S. and Europe — to educate graduate business students about the business implications of climate change. This precatalyst grant will be used to explore the potential to hold the 2021 ClimateCAP Summit at Duke Kunshan University (DKU) in partnership with the DKU Environmental Research Center. This effort supports a wider project to enhance Chinese private sector actions to address climate change.

Collaborators: Jackson Ewing, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the Sanford School of Public Policy; Kathinka Furst, Duke Kunshan University Environmental Research Center; Dan Vermeer, Fuqua Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment

Catalyzing New Collaborations on Social and Environmental Determinants of Health in Durham, N.C.

This project will bring together the expertise at the School of Medicine with the environmental policy expertise at the Nicholas Institute to develop policy-relevant, applied-research projects that evaluate approaches to address longitudinal changes in health outcomes due to dynamic environmental processes within neighborhoods. It will also seek to combine this work with a developing collaboration on housing security to assess children’s health and educational outcomes.

Collaborators: Nrupen Bhavsar, Department of Medicine, General Internal Medicine; Kay Jowers, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions; Laura Richman, Department of Population Health Sciences; Christopher Timmins, Economics Department

HighSeas @ Duke

The open ocean is facing rapid industrialization through traditional uses, such as fishing and shipping, and areas of growth including deep-sea mining, offshore aquaculture, offshore energy development, and communications infrastructure that together drive the emerging “Blue Economy.” The management and governance of resources in marine areas beyond national jurisdiction is an urgent focus of the international community. This project will develop the strategic foundation for Duke University researchers to become the premiere academic resource for high seas ocean governance.

Collaborators: Daniel Dunn, Nicholas School of the Environment; John Virdin and Katie Latanich, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions; Steve Roady, Duke School of Law and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

Artisanal Gold Mining Intervention Assessment

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is an informal, nonmechanized economic sector in typically rural areas of more than 70 countries around the world. ASGM is the largest global source of mercury to the environment, and the practice is a leading cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss in countries where it takes place. This project will aggregate knowledge of the underlying dynamics of ASGM and identify and compare interventions that can address various impacts of gold mining to inform current funding priorities and next steps in scientific research and policy integration.

Collaborators: Bill Pan, Duke Global Health Institute and Nicholas School of the Environment; Alex Pfaff, Sanford School of Public Policy, Nicholas School of the Environment, and Economics Department; Lydia Olander and Elizabeth Losos, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

Marine Medicine: Multidisciplinary Research at the Nexus of the Environment and Human Health

Plastics make up more than 10 percent of human waste. Much of these plastics end up in the ocean, where they can be ingested by fish, birds, and other marine species. With the staggering volume of plastic debris produced annually and clear environmental and potential human health impacts, there is an urgent need to develop novel strategies to combat plastics bioaccumulation. Funding from this pre-catalyst grant will provide students with summer internships through the Duke Scholars in Marine Medicine Program to work on a research project investigating how new pollutants and new technology to remediate these pollutants interface with public policy decisions.

Collaborators: Jason Somarelli, Department of Medicine and Duke Comparative Oncology Group; Steve Roady, Duke Law School and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions; Meagan Dunphy-Daly, Daniel Rittschof, Andrew Read, and Thomas Schultz, Nicholas School of the Environment and Duke Marine Laboratory; Richard Di Giulio, Nicholas School of the Environment; William Eward, Department of Orthopaedics and Duke Comparative Oncology Group


Originally posted on the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions website; updated 6/17/19 with sixth project

Students Can Propose Energy Access Projects for Summer 2019

Portable cookstove.

Deadline: March 17, 2019

The Energy Access Project at Duke University (EAP) invites proposals for student projects in Summer 2019 related to energy access in less-developed countries, with a focus on either modern technologies and fuels for cooking, or access to reliable, affordable, safe, and sustainable electricity.

EAP is particularly interested in supporting projects and work with organizations that (i) promote innovative approaches to accelerate sustainable energy transitions in low- and middle-income countries; (ii) offer insights that are applicable or generalizable to wider audiences; (iii) build linkages with innovative companies and non-profits in the energy access space; and/or (iv) are related to ongoing EAP projects.

Undergraduate and graduate students at Duke who are currently enrolled, and will be enrolled full-time at Duke in Fall 2019, are eligible to apply for up to $4,000. While funding is available for a variety of experiences including internships or research projects, we will prioritize proposals that identify a sponsoring organization that the student has established contact with and secured logistical and institutional support from. We will also prioritize proposals for projects in the field (i.e., in low- or middle-income countries, working with communities that directly experience energy access challenges). However, we will consider proposals for internships or projects based at Duke, or in other parts of the developed world. While EAP recognizes that energy poverty exists worldwide, including in developed countries, at present our focus is on less-developed countries. If you are uncertain if your position or setting would qualify, we encourage you to contact us before applying.

We will prioritize funding for travel and living expenses, and we will also consider (with lower priority) requests for payments to sponsoring organizations, funding to purchase equipment or data, or translation services. This call for proposals is not intended to provide funding for tuition for language schools, nor student stipends or salaries.

We will also prioritize funding for applicants who have investigated and pursued other funding alternatives. We anticipate considerably more demand for student funding than we can accommodate, and we aim to use our limited funds to help students assemble projects that also leverage other funding sources to further their goals.

Proposals must be submitted electronically (MS Word preferred) to by 11:59 pm (EST) March 17, 2019. Proposals submitted after this time will not be considered. Recipients will be notified by mid-March. Upon completion of the summer work, recipients will be required to write a brief article or blog post summarizing their project and present an overview of the work at an EAP-sponsored event in Fall 2019 (the latter requirement can be deferred to accommodate study abroad).

Proposal Format

Proposals should be two to three pages long and must include the following:

  • Your contact information: Name, degree program and expected graduation year, department, faculty advisor, and email address.
  • Description of the project. This section should be reasonably well detailed, and should include specific responsibilities to the extent you know them. If the experience includes field work, please also indicate how long you intend to stay in the country, and where specifically you will be (in one city, traveling to communities, etc.).
  • Description of the sponsoring organization (if applicable), including location, and the nature of your conversations with the organization to date. Please note whether the organization has agreed to provide logistical and institutional support, and describe the nature of this support (e.g., an office space, teammates, logistical or language support for travel, etc.).
  • How your proposed project contributes to the priorities of the EAP. If you believe your project relates to another ongoing project at EAP, please identify which project and describe how yours is related.
  • How your proposal fits within your academic program, and within your broader learning goals and/or professional goals.
  • What other funding sources you have applied or intend to apply for, including amounts you have already secured. (For undergraduates, please indicate if you have also applied to Duke Engage; if not, please explain why not.)
  • A budget for the proposed internship or experience. (Budget information can be provided on a separate page.)


Questions or clarifications may be addressed to Victoria Plutshack, Policy Associate at the Energy Access Project:

Jonathan Wiener on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“These projects have been crucial to my engagement with colleagues and students across the university”

Bass Connections team members with Jonathan Wiener.
Photo by Beth Mann: Jonathan Wiener (right) and Christine Hendren (lower right) with Bass Connections students in front of their poster, The Saga of CFCs, Ozone Depletion, and Climate Change

“I came to Duke 25 years ago in order to be part of the multidisciplinary community here,” says Jonathan B. Wiener. “Duke was poised to launch a series of cross-cutting initiatives, and it was my good fortune to be part of creating some of them.”

Jonathan B. Wiener.Wiener is the William R. and Thomas L. Perkins Professor of Law at Duke Law School, Professor of Environmental Policy at the Nicholas School of the Environment, and Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy. He has been involved in numerous research collaborations involving faculty and students from across the university, including Rethinking Regulation at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the new Center on Risk at the Science & Society Initiative, a Collaboratory on Geoengineering, and six Bass Connections projects.

Recently he reflected on some of the impacts of his involvement in collaborative inquiry at Duke. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

Expanding Networks

These collaborative projects have been crucial to my engagement with colleagues and also with students across the university. [Bass Connections has] enabled me to work with teams to investigate complex topics like protecting the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer and climate, how to assess and manage emerging technologies such as automated vehicles, and how to protect drinking water. [They] also enabled us to bring in speakers from outside Duke to enrich our conversations – for example, environmental diplomat Ambassador Jennifer Haverkamp, and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.

Bass Connections projects are also useful for connecting with students from different schools with different skills. For me, it was a good opportunity to connect with undergraduate students in particular, because most of my teaching is in the Law School, Sanford School, and Nicholas School. Duke’s undergraduates are so impressive, smart, and energetic. Bass Connections invites them to see how research projects are developed and to participate in a research team.

I’m currently working with several people on the governance of geoengineering, including Mark Borsuk, Christine Hendren, and Tyler Felgenhauer in the Pratt School of Engineering, Billy Pizer in the Sanford School, Drew Shindell in the Nicholas School, and Khara Grieger at RTI. Geoengineering is a strategy to prevent climate change, but it poses its own risks, so there is a key need for governance to avoid unwise or harmful deployment of geoengineering. We have written one paper that we’ve submitted to a journal, and we are going to apply for external funding for further research. For the Society for Risk Analysis annual conference, we organized and held a set of sessions on the governance of geoengineering [see part 1 and part 2] that featured speakers from Duke and other universities. We are also planning a Bass Connections project team on geoengineering for 2019-20.

Photo by Ben Shepard: Participants in the Center on Risk “head to head” discussion of AI: Risks and Responses: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Philosophy), Vincent Conitzer (Computer Science), and Jonathan Wiener (Law School and Center on Risk).
Photo by Ben Shepard: Center on Risk discussion on AI risks and responses: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Philosophy), Vincent Conitzer (Computer Science), Jonathan Wiener

We’re starting a new Duke Center on Risk, to be launched in the Science & Society Initiative, which grows out of a Provost’s Office planning grant. In 2018, we held a series of Risk Watering Holes, where more than 25 faculty gave short talks as a way for people to learn about different topics and methodologies. We also asked each speaker to touch on what types of colleagues he or she would like to collaborate with to better address risk. In Fall 2018, we started to hold more in-depth ‘head to head’ talks: so far we’ve held one on risks to Duke’s campus, and one on AI risks and responses. We have also sponsored external speakers and supported some students to go to the Society for Risk Analysis conference. Also, we have begun conversations with a group of undergraduates who want to create a student organization about emerging risks.

Publications from a Team of Researchers

Policy Shock book cover.Bass Connections projects can be very fruitful as funding for a team of researchers. I think it’s most fruitful when students help to design the research and produce a team project report.

Together with Ed Balleisen from the History Department, Lori Bennear from the Nicholas School and Energy Initiative, and Kim Krawiec from the Law School, we recently published a book, Policy Shock, that included a chapter coauthored by student contributors from the Regulatory Disaster Scene Investigation project of Bass Connections. An external grant enabled us to have a series of authors’ workshops with multiple chapter authors. We were able to bring in other colleagues at and outside Duke to broaden our set of case studies – on oil spills, nuclear power accidents, and financial crashes – so we could generate more comparative insights and lessons.

A graduate student in the Law School, Daniel Ribeiro, and I published a paper called “Environmental Regulation Going Retro” as an outgrowth of another Bass Connections project, Reviewing Retrospective Regulatory Review. This paper drew on Daniel’s dissertation research and my earlier work on the same topic.

One of last year’s Bass Connections projects was about adaptive regulation applied to the emerging technology of automated vehicles. Associated with that project, Lori Bennear of the Nicholas School and I are undertaking our own research and writing on the different options for adaptive regulation. We received a grant from the Provost’s Office, and we are writing a paper about how regulations can be designed to be adaptive as we learn more about changing technology, science, and society.

Photo by Braden Welborn: Jonathan Wiener (far left), Lori Bennear (fifth from right), and students on the Bass Connections team on adaptive regulation of emerging technologies host former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx (center).
Photo by Braden Welborn: Jonathan Wiener (far left), Lori Bennear (fifth from right), and students on the Bass Connections team on adaptive regulation of emerging technologies host former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx (center).

Approach to Teaching

I think one challenge has been in orienting everyone, students and faculty, to seeing the Bass Connections projects as collaborative team projects, rather than as conventional courses where faculty teach the students. There is a tendency by everyone to revert to the familiar default model of a professor conveying information to the students, whereas I think Bass Connections projects work best where everyone is a member of the team investigating something interesting, and at the beginning we don’t yet know exactly how we want to proceed.

Another aspect of Bass Connections is that these are team projects with multiple professors, and we faculty have to be able to share the time with each other and to collaborate on designing what the project will cover and what materials we’ll ask people to read. It’s very helpful to have a point person to coordinate that. This person can be a faculty member, a graduate student project manager, or both.

New Collaborative Efforts

Center on Risk logo.We are now launching a new Duke Center on Risk, based in the Science and Society Initiative. This is something I’ve wanted to do for many years, since I was president of the Society for Risk Analysis in 2008. Now is a great time to do this at Duke because it builds on the work that Mark Borsuk, Lori Bennear, I and others have been doing on rethinking regulation, on risk and resilience, and on specific applications and concepts like geoengineering, AI, extreme catastrophic risks, and risk-risk tradeoffs. We are grateful to the Provost for the planning grant and to Nita Farahany and the Science & Society Initiative for giving our center a supportive home.

In addition, we have started planning an event to be held at Duke in November 2020 on the EPA at 50. We have convened a collaborative group to brainstorm how we should organize this, including from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, the Energy Initiative, Rethinking Regulation, our Center on Risk, and faculty from a number of different schools. We may try to do a Bass Connections and/or a Story+ project to engage students in helping to assess the history of the EPA. This EPA at 50 event will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the U.S. EPA in 1970, and it will build on similar events we have held at Duke on EPA at 20, 30, and 40. We’re seeing Duke’s schools, institutes, initiatives, and Bass Connections as all fitting into this collective effort.

See all current initiatives in the Together Duke academic strategic plan, and learn more about these seed funding opportunities:

  • Research Collaboratories (see RFP for projects in Energy and Water Resources; Race, Religion, and Citizenship; and Population Health, due February 15)

Pursue a New Collaboration on Environmental Policy

Catalyst funding.

Deadline: March 15, 2019

The Nicholas Institute’s mission is to help decision makers create timely, effective, and economically practical solutions to the world’s critical environmental challenges. The Nicholas Institute engages local, state and federal governments, international agencies, NGO’s, companies, and communities through convening, providing legal, economic, and policy analysis, and supporting the process of taking policy concepts and turning them into practice.

The vision for the Catalyst Program is to build on this mission by increasing engagement with Duke University faculty to incubate and advance new partnerships, enhance policy-relevant knowledge, and create innovative policy solutions based on new creative synergies. The program will invest in policy-relevant proposals that catalyze Nicholas Institute and faculty collaborations in new or emergent areas of shared interest. The program’s intent is to create collaborations that will continue past the grant and become central components of the Institute’s work in the years ahead.

Eligible Participants

Each proposal must be co-chaired by at least one person from the Nicholas Institute’s senior staff (see list) and a Duke faculty member from any discipline. Priority will be given to proposals submitted by faculty representing schools that have had limited participation in the program in past grant cycles.

Funding and Project Types

Awards will be given out for use during the 2020 fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020, in two categories:

  • Pre-catalyst planning grants of up to $5,000. These proposals should be used to investigate the possibility of a collaboration that could result in a catalyst proposal in the next fiscal year.
  • Catalyst grants of up to $20,000. Award funding can be used for basic and applied research, workshops, and events, including the cost of food, meeting venues, travel, external speakers, and post-doctoral and research assistant support. Note: On the basis of project performance and interest, these projects may be considered for renewal for additional funding in FY21.

Project Requirements

Projects must connect Nicholas Institute senior staff with Duke faculty, building on the core competencies of the co-chairs, and develop new or emergent ideas related to environmental policy challenges at the federal, state, and local level. Projects can be new initiatives or expansions of existing partnerships. They can include broad, multipart projects, of which this funding is a piece, as well as smaller, intensive scoping or pilot projects. Additional considerations for project eligibility include (1) the project’s alignment with the Nicholas Institute’s mission, (2) the project team’s ability to leverage additional resources and secure future funding (with a particular interest in aligning with funding priorities of the Together Duke strategic plan), and (3) potential for long-term impact.

Application Instructions

Review and Selection

Proposals are due no later than 5 p.m., March 15, 2019. A PDF of your proposal should be submitted to

Proposals will be reviewed by the Nicholas Institute Strategic Advisory Committee and final award decisions will be made no later than May 3, 2019.

Proposal Template

Please limit your proposal to four pages inclusive of the following information:

  • Project Title and One-Sentence Summary
  • Project Co-Chairs and Senior Personnel
  • Proposed Budget: Provide an overall budget for your project, including a description of requested support and its anticipated uses. Identify other sources of funding, including funding already obtained or requested. List any funding opportunities that you intend to pursue.
  • Proposal Narrative (maximum 2 pages): Provide an overview of your project that articulates (1) the question or problem that the project proposes to explore; (2) the project goals; (3) proposed activities or work plan, including timeframes; and (4) anticipated outcome or impact.
  • Evaluation Plan: Describe the metrics that will be used to effectively demonstrate and quantify the project’s outcomes or impact. If the proposal requests a continuation from a prior grant, please also provide an evaluation of how the prior year’s grant met its proposed metrics.
  • Sustainability Plan: If you can anticipate how this project will continue after the Catalyst Program support concludes, provide a future funding plan.
  • Engagement Plan: If you anticipate your project will include public outreach or engagement with decision makers, describe the relevant plans and timelines.

Previous Awardees

Five proposals were funded in Fiscal Year 2019:

  • Duke Infrastructure Course
  • Assessing Rural Attitudes on the Environment
  • Energy Transition Portal
  • Practice Imperfect?
  • Sustainable Seafood Program

Additional details on FY2019 projects

Six projects were funded in Fiscal Year 2018, the first year of the program.

  • One Belt, One Road, How Much Biodiversity?
  • Does Rural Energy Access Promote Economic Development through Improved Food and Water Access?
  • Developing Improved Small-Scale Fisheries Policies, and Building a Core Sustainable Seafood Policy Competency at the Duke World Food Policy Center
  • Building a Conservation Agenda That Works with and for Rural America
  • Financial Regionalization for Assisting Low-Resource Water and Wastewater Systems
  • New Collaborations in Environmental Health

See additional information on these projects.

See Catalyst Program 2019-20 RFP (PDF).