Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, Water: Development of the Initiative and What Lies in Store

Dr. France A. Córdova
Director, National Science Foundation
National Council for Science and the Environment National Conference
January 20, 2016
Arlington, Virginia

Good evening. I am excited to be here with this large, enthusiastic community of thinkers. I’d like to start by congratulating former NSF Director Dr. Rita Colwell and Dr. Ram Ramanathan on their richly deserved Lifetime Achievement Awards. Some of the NSF-sponsored projects that I will mention in my talk were started when Rita was the NSF Director.

Thanks to the National Council for Science and the Environment for bringing together leaders from research, business, and government to focus attention on a pressing challenge: the food-energy-water nexus. These are resources central to life. Ensuring their supply is a perennial human challenge. As we anticipate population growth, changes in climate (including extreme weather events), and worldwide economic development, it is urgent for us to be working today to meet growing demands and ensure global stability tomorrow.

This urgency is the motivation for the NSF initiative Innovations at the Nexus of Food-Energy-Water Systems, or INFEWS. I would like to focus my discussion on the development of this initiative, some of the work that has proceeded, and the view toward the future.


Interrelations among FEW Systems

Historically, research approached each resource—food, energy, water—separately. As we have looked toward better management of these resources, it has become increasingly clear that their production, distribution, and consumption belong to connected and dynamic systems. Water and energy are critical for food production. Biofuel production needs water and agricultural resources. Water is needed to produce hydropower and to cool power plants. Energy is needed for wastewater treatment, desalination, pumping water, and for transport of food.

As thinkers from various disciplines have joined forces and looked at the systemic relationships among food, energy, and water systems, inquiry and problem-solving are moving to the next level. Harnessing the thinking and creativity of multiple perspectives is behind the INFEWS initiative.

We need further research to understand the relationships because, in the coming decades, we will see new stressors on these three critical resources. By 2050, the U.S. population is expected to grow to 400 million and the global population to 9 billion, bringing greater demands for food, energy, and water.

Population growth and migration and their associated economic development and food production will cause ecological impacts. Add to these stressors such environmental factors as variations in precipitation, and you have major challenges for food, energy, and water systems.

Adaptations, both technological and social, will require new understanding of the issues, new scientific approaches—and new scientists and engineers who can think creatively. The INFEWS initiative aims to further our knowledge of these complex challenges and apply the knowledge to decision-making and resource management.


How the initiative developed

The scope of the challenges across education and all disciplines of science places the INFEWS initiative squarely within the NSF mission to promote fundamental research that can increase economic growth, innovation, and security.

The development of INFEWS was informed by a number of recent NSF-sponsored projects that centered on the Earth’s relational systems, an approach falling under the broad header of “Environmental Science.”

Appreciation of environmental processes as components of “Complex Environmental Systems,” as the AC-ERE [Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education] report of January 2003 was titled, led to other NSF programs whose concepts were eventually incorporated into the broader context of SEES [Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability; 2009 to 2015], which examined the science and technology necessary to achieve “sustainability.”

Under the SEES initiative was the program “Water Sustainability and Climate,” which enabled significant advances in the understanding of water cycle systems and the cross-influences on water systems of agriculture, hydropower, and transportation. Other programs under SEES focused on reducing water consumption in power plants, enhancing crop yields, understanding decision-making about food-energy-water system issues, providing insights into new technology concepts, and advancing knowledge of interactions among land, atmosphere, and coastal regions.

Last fall, the AC-ERE published a new 10-year outlook, America’s Future, which follows on the 2003 report. Two notable points in the report are first, that the cross-disciplinary nature of the problems calls on us to think beyond individual disciplines as we invest our research dollars; and second, that environmental science is crucial to environmental protection, economic prosperity, and increased security.


4 key research thrusts of the INFEWS Initiative

The overarching goal of the INFEWS initiative is to integrate interdisciplinary research and scientific understanding into decision-making to improve system management and function. The INFEWS initiative is designed specifically to attain the following four critical goals:

  • Advance our understanding of the coupled food-energy-water system through integrated systems modeling;
  • Create methodologies for effective data integration and cyber elements at multiple temporal and spatial scales. This will enable further understanding and support better management of FEWS;
  • Support fundamental science and engineering to create new solutions and technologies to use water, land, and energy resources effectively.
  • Develop the next generation of researchers and workforce.

Examples of work to date

In 2015, NSF communicated with research communities to develop and define important research questions through proposals for workshops, supplements to existing grants, and, for a few select cases, Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGERS). The research community responded enthusiastically. NSF held 17 workshops and funded 25 supplements. This work is informing research questions, enabling the development of academic partnerships, and enhancing collaborations among federal agencies.

Workshops covered diverse topics within the FEWS nexus, including technological issues, needed regional and disciplinary contributions to building new research directions, and improved methods of data collection, management, and analysis. The workshops and supplements helped to uncover issues that are enabling deeper inquiry into improving FEWS. Some examples—

  • How do we integrate data, instruments, and models that currently operate at different spatial and temporal scales?
  • How can we increase the efficiency of FEWS?
  • How can regions balance use of FEWS resources to enable sustainability?
  • The complex interconnections of FEWS pose formidable scientific modeling challenges. How can big data, computational resources, and cyber-infrastructure improve decision-making?
  • How can changes to infrastructure, institutions, and behavior increase resilience and improve food security?

In addition to addressing specific issues in the workshops and solicitations, NSF has focused on educating and training scientists and engineers to grapple with problems in the FEWS nexus. We foresee that FEWS-nexus research will become increasingly broad with opportunities for technological and sociologic advances. Programs such as the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship and EPSCoR, the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, are avenues for training the next generation of scientists and engineers to understand the complexities of FEWS.

In partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges, NSF has opened the second annual Community College Innovation Challenge, whose theme this year is the food-energy-water nexus. By challenging students to submit science, technology, engineering and mathematics-based solutions to real-world FEWS-related issues of local and global concern, this competition aims not only to spotlight food-energy-water breakthroughs, but to open opportunities for community college students in the innovation economy.


What we expect to do in FY2016?

The INFEWS initiative provides an overarching research context to advance science and meet significant national needs through application and technological innovation, and we look forward this year to supporting research that can lead to better use of FEWS resources. Last month, NSF and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture issued a joint solicitation for proposals, with plans to make awards this summer. The solicitation provides a context for NSF interactions with other agencies for fundamental research that may be complementary to their agency missions. We would like to thank USDA for this collaboration.

This conference offers a great opportunity to advance inquiry as we understand the questions being generated from different creative perspectives … and emerge working in sync to develop answers.

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