UMN Alumni News: Down to Earth: Jon Foley


Jon Foley
Photo by Joe Treleven
Jon Foley

Sitting behind his desk at the Institute on the Environment’s offices on the St. Paul campus, sleeves rolled up to better shape thoughts in the air, Jon Foley elucidates his vision for the University of Minnesota’s two-year-old institute. While his words illuminate his plans, however, the only light in the room itself comes from a window framing an overcast November sky.

Focused on a vastly wider world of environmental issues, Foley doesn’t notice such details as the office lights turned off. He’s the new director of the institute, a position he assumed this past August after an eight-year stint as director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), which he founded at the age of 32.

Now 40, Foley is a scientist at heart, as comfortable analyzing data sets as he is talking about his plans for the institute. And when he begins talking about current environmental problems, he exudes a clear and forceful confidence that conveys not only that he knows what he’s talking about, but that he’s determined to do something about it.

“We hear a lot about the environment today, whether it’s about a new technology we can use to create renewable energy or about how we can recycle better or how we use local food,” Foley says. “Those are all tactical issues. The strategic question, the greatest of the grand challenges of the 21st century is really one question: How are we going to provide for the pillars of our civilization — food, fresh water, energy, health? How are we going to sustain those in a world that might be 9 or 10 billion people in the future, where presently 90 percent of the world has almost nothing? How are we going to pull that off without killing ourselves? That is the greatest challenge of the 21st century, and that’s ultimately where I think we should be aiming.”

When Jon Foley talks about the future potential of the Institute on the Environment — or IonE, as it’s known for short — he presents a convincing case that the sky is the limit. But the journey that led him from a childhood in Maine to the directorship of the institute has all been about coming back down to earth.

At its start, SAGE had no funds and one employee: Foley. By the time he left the University of Wisconsin, the center had about 60 people and several million dollars in funding “We grew it deliberately . . . and showed how this investment paid off, and it worked pretty well,” Foley says. “But we also ran into the limitations of what a small center could really do.”

What the University of Minnesota offered, Foley says, was a high level of institutional commitment and an aspiration to go beyond the standard methods that universities had typically employed to address environmental issues. Senior Vice President and Provost Thomas Sullivan, who was instrumental in both the creation of the institute and the hiring of Foley as its director, says that the University has had long-standing strengths in the environmental arena. “But our feeling was that the efforts, spread across many colleges and numerous departments, may have been too dispersed to have the research and policy and public engagement impact that it really should have,” Sullivan says.

“The full expectation is that Jon Foley and his faculty colleagues here at the University will be able to make this new institute into a world-class center on environmental research and public policy questions around that research that will attempt to solve many of the big, global, environmental issues of the day,” Sullivan continues. “We expect this institute to be on the world stage, making huge contributions.”

“What I wanted to be when I grew up was an astronomer, so I actually started out my academic life in physics and astronomy,” Foley says. Even while his gaze was turned to the heavens, though, he was intrigued by the apparently privileged position in our solar system occupied by our own planet. “Why is Earth the Goldilocks of all of our planets? Venus is too hot, Mars is too cold, Earth is just right. And how does this compare to other solar systems around the universe? This kind of thing still fascinates me.”

That awareness of Earth’s special qualities swayed Foley to refocus his attention on Earth’s climate and the study of meteorology. “But for some reason or other I seem to be a little bit of a misfit in whatever field I happen to be in at the moment,” he says. Having settled into the atmospheric sciences, Foley began thinking about how ecosystems interacted with the atmosphere. “The stuff we have in the air—the carbon dioxide, the methane, or oxygen — a lot of that’s mediated by life, and so your understanding of our climate is incomplete unless you know something about the life on this planet.”

The final twist in Foley’s journey was that he began to incorporate humans and their land-use practices, such as agriculture and forestry, into his climatic considerations. In keeping with his big-picture beginnings, he looked at the interaction of these practices with the climate in a global context. “One thing I did learn from astronomy is not to be wigged out by scale,” he explains.

Wigged out or not, Foley knew he couldn’t tackle these planetary issues on his own. Eventually, he set out to create a center at the University of Wisconsin, where he had been on the faculty since 1993, that would bring researchers together to work on global environmental problems.

Helping IonE turn its grand ambitions into reality will be a group of about a dozen resident fellows chosen from the University’s faculty. Each of the fellows, who will rotate through the institute in three-year terms, will be given $75,000 to support new research or other activities that promote the institute’s mission. Also, starting early this year, IonE will fund a handful of major research projects selected from proposals submitted by interdisciplinary faculty teams, with each team receiving roughly $250,000.

Foley likes to think of himself not as a bureaucratic director but as the institute’s chief science officer.” The McKnight Presidential Chair in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, he says he plans to play more than just a supporting role in research. The interaction between land use and climate that has been at the heart of Foley’s research for the last several years will become the foundation of a project called the Global Landscapes Initiative that he is launching at the institute.

Fueling Research
It’s not often that one can witness a large roomful of people sit in rapt attention as speakers hold forth about pond scum. Last November’s E3 Conference, organized by the University’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE), offered just such an opportunity. The panel presentation on algae’s potential to become one of the next big biofuels was one of 15 breakout sessions attended by more than 700 academics and industry representatives who had converged on St. Paul’s RiverCentre to learn about the latest research in the ever-changing and fast-growing field of renewable energy.

Now a “signature program” of the Institute on the Environment, IREE was initially fueled in 2003 by $20 million allocated by the Minnesota State Legislature from Xcel Energy’s renewable development and conservation improvement program funds. To date, IREE has funded 135 faculty research projects at the University of Minnesota that run the renewable energy gamut from biofuels to hydrogen to solar and wind power.

“Early on, we established some investment principles and some core values, and among them was that we put a high premium on multidisciplinary effort,” says Dick Hemmingsen, IREE’s director and a guiding force behind the initiative from its inception. He recounts a meeting in IREE’s early days attended by Professor David Kittleson, head of the University’s Center for Diesel Research; Professor Roger Ruan, in bioproducts; and Professor Donald Wyse, in agronomy. “So here was an interesting combination, if you think about the system of renewable energy in the biospace: Somebody’s got to grow this stuff, somebody’s got to convert it, and somebody’s got to figure out how to use the fuels. These three individuals met for the first time at one of these informational meetings that IREE organized, and now they’re collaborators.”

Hemmingsen points proudly to the commercial potential of IREE-funded research: “The patent disclosure activity in the renewable energy portfolio at the University of Minnesota, which is largely IREE supported, is two and a half to three times greater than anywhere else in the University.” Given that track record, it’s possible that down the road someone may not only figure out how to efficiently convert algae into fuel but also into a fortune. —D.M.

“One of the most transformative things we’ve done to the world is the invention of agriculture,” Foley says. “We use something like 20 percent of the world’s landscapes for growing crops, another 20 percent or more are in pastures, and we barely understand how they work at the global level. We do pretty well in the Midwest, but what’s happening in the Amazonian frontier? What’s happening in Indonesia with the oil palm plantations, now that they’re expanding? How are these systems responding to new global markets for bioenergy, for animal feed as people eat more and more meat across the world? What does that mean for the environment?” Foley says that the “toolbox” that his team will be using to answer these questions will include satellite imagery, computer modeling, and global networks of on-the-ground observations.

Among the likely members of the Global Landscapes Initiative team is renowned ecology professor David Tilman, one of IonE’s founding fellows. Tilman, who was recently awarded the prestigious International Prize for Biology for his seminal biodiversity research, has been studying 45 years’ worth of data to try to understand how the demand for more and different kinds of food — brought about in response to a global population that is growing not only in size but in affluence — will affect land-use changes around the world, such as the conversion of tropical rain forests and temperate grasslands to farmland.

“Jon and I have independently come to think that we have to look in much more depth at land-use change, most of it driven by agriculture, because it could have a surprisingly large impact on global climate in the long term, as well as on the loss of biological diversity,” Tilman says. He adds that, according to his research, the “net total effect” of agriculture on greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may within a few years be nearly equal to the effect on the atmosphere of burning fossil fuels.

Tilman is no stranger to the kind of interdisciplinary efforts that IonE champions, having worked with economists and mechanical engineers on research teams sponsored by the University’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE). IREE, which has been funding research on biofuels, hydrogen, wind, and solar energy since its inception five years ago, has now been brought under IonE’s umbrella as a “signature program,” giving the institute a leg up on bringing scholars of diverse backgrounds together to solve problems.

Breaking down the barriers between the University’s disparate disciplines is just the beginning of what Foley thinks IonE needs to accomplish. “If all we’ve done is discover the stairwells of the ivory tower and now we’re going up and down between the floors a little better, that isn’t good enough,” he asserts. “We have to really make a bigger kind of transformative change to make sure we really do engage in broader society — the private sector, the NGO world, media, the arts, and government — and really try to build more of a network model, where the walls are permeable in both directions.”

Ultimately, the best model for how to go about addressing the grave environmental concerns facing the world today might be the environment itself — a lesson Foley said he learned in an after-dinner conversation with his sister-in-law, an environmental advocate in New England.

“We need good scientists, we need good engineers, we need good policy wonks,” says Foley. “But what we don’t need is a zoo of them, where we have one or two in their cages over here, one or two in their cages over there. That’s a broken ecosystem. We need to make sure people are traveling outside their usual haunts and connect up the ecosystem, not just hanging out with the members of their own species.”

Continues Foley: “We’re trying to figure out how to design the institute to be not a zoo but a real, functioning ecosystem.”

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