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U of M Institute invites industry to help set environmental research priorities

How can a manufacturer efficiently recycle precious metals taken from products slated for the dumpster? Does “green” labeling influence consumers’ choices? If so, how?

Driven by cost pressures, the drive for greater efficiency and the need to respond to consumer demands, private industry has tried to come up with answers to questions like that on their own, one by one.

This week, an invitation-only kickoff gathering of industry, academics and governmental and nongovernmental agencies will launch “an all hands on deck approach” to finding solutions to complex environmental problems, according to Tim Smith, director of the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise (NISE) at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

The two-day event Thursday and Friday inaugurates what organizers describe as a unique, collaborative approach to solving complex environmental problems.

While industry/university collaboration is common, the NISE initiative is unique, Smith said, because it leverages existing knowledge in the private sector about sustainability issues and will use its twice-a-year gathering to help set research priorities.

Typically, a faculty member would propose a research topic of interest to them and identify funding sources. Smith explained. “At this point, we’re trying to identify lots of great ideas out there in the marketplace ... to solve problems.”

“Today’s environmental and social challenges are too big for any single organization,” Smith said “so we need to develop new ways of leveraging existing understanding, tackling information gaps and sharing innovative solutions across sectors.”

Because the Institute is interdisciplinary by design, it is intended to cut across departments within the U. Currently, participants play an advisory role only and do not fund research. Smith said that the results of research will be made available to the consortium members and the public, saying the goal is not to create patented work for the U.

“Ultimately, we are attempting to transform how the University works with practitioner experts to create and apply knowledge,” he said. “We are trying to find ways to engage many different companies around the region and nationally” who have developed their own experience and research on issues of sustainability and “to break the mold on how research is funded.”

Dr. Greg Allgood, director of Procter and Gamble’s Children’s Safe Drinking Water program, will deliver the keynote address to the NISE attendees. The conference agenda will focus on designing for sustainable consumption, creating value through exchange relationships and energy, water and ecosystem integration. Outcomes from these discussions will form a series of research projects to be announced by midsummer, according to the Institute.

Check here for more details on the session and NorthStar participants.

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