By Andy Evangelista
|A new UC transportation research initiative will try to solve
problems like California's chronic traffic jams.
UC researchers are banding together across campuses and disciplines to tackle some of the state's most pressing issues, from clean energy and transportation to social disparities and California's changing demography.
The UC Office of the President recently awarded $68 million in competitive grants to 37 Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives – innovative collaborations that, over the next five years, will assemble statewide teams of UC experts from a broad range of fields to focus their efforts around specific research areas important to California.
"The Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives take advantage of UC's unique power of 10 campuses that are all world class," said Steven Beckwith, UC vice president for research and graduate studies. "The scholarship funded by the MRPI program addresses critical California needs by combining the intellectual power at all our universities to do research that could not be done at only one."
Long-haul view of California transportation
One of the initiatives will team UC researchers from more than 30 disciplines on six UC campuses to work on reducing congestion, oil use, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
"Transportation is central to economic and social life in California," said Stephen Ritchie, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Irvine and co-director of the new sustainable transportation research program, which was awarded $6.25 million over five years.
"The transport of people and goods uses about three-fourths of all the oil consumed in the state, produces 40 percent of the greenhouse gases, and contributes about half of urban air pollution," said Ritchie, who is co-directing the research program with Samer Madanat, director of the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies, and Daniel Sperling, director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies.
California has passed laws to reduce land-use sprawl and vehicle travel and cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. "We have a mandate for change," said Ritchie. "But the majority of the policies, strategies and technologies needed to create a low-carbon transportation and energy system do not yet exist."
UC has many prominent experts and established research programs in the field, but until now, they have not integrated their efforts to really transform the transportation system, said Ritchie.
With the new multicampus initiative, three successful Institute of Transportation Studies programs at UC Berkeley, UC Davis and UC Irvine will now partner with electrical engineering specialists at UC Riverside, geographers at UC Santa Barbara and urban planners at UCLA.
The new program will focus on three tracks: next generation vehicles and fuels, including biofuels, electricity and hydrogen and improved vehicle technology; better-managed transportation systems; and land-use planning to reduce urban sprawl and vehicle travel.
The Center for Hydrologic Modeling, awarded $2.4 million, links researchers at eight UC campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories. As the state confronts ongoing drought and water supply problems, the center will use satellites and field research to more accurately determine how much water exists in California and where it's located. The results will be shared with water agencies throughout the state to help them develop their policies and allocation plans.
"There's been too large of a gap between decision-makers and scientists over the water situation in California," said Jay Famiglietti, director of the center and professor of earth system science and civil and environmental engineering at UC Irvine.
Next-generation solar energy
At UC Merced, physicist Roland Winston, a pioneer in solar energy research, will head a new initiative called the California Advanced Solar Technologies Institutes, funded with a $2.25 million grant.
"California, the most populous state, provides many ideal settings for the development and utilization of solar energy," said Winston, who has invented devices that harness sunlight and multiply the energy to thousands of times more than its natural level.
Now, researchers at UC Merced, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara, will use nanotechnology and non-imaging optics to develop new solar cell materials and methods to cool and heat buildings or generate electricity.
The program, said Winston, will train graduate students and speed the commercialization of solar technologies.
Building connections, boosting equity
Another program, Collaborative Research for an Equitable California, will use $1.53 million over five years to bring UC researchers together with community organizers and policy-makers to tackle the state's interconnected crises in education, employment, health, nutrition, housing and the environment. The collaborative will address how disparities and inequities in these areas are linked.
"Historically, the university has done research in education, in health care, in housing, in economic development – we want to begin where all these crises intersect," said Ronald Glass, who will co-direct the center with fellow education professor Rodney Ogawa at UC Santa Cruz. "It's not an accident that kids who don't eat well and don't have good health care don't do very well in school."
The center, with researchers from six UC campuses, will establish seven research sites in rural and urban areas, including one on the U.S. border with Mexico, said Glass. The center will prepare a new generation of scholars skilled in working with community-based and government agencies and policy-makers to generate interventions that will benefit California.
New race relations era
UC Santa Barbara sociology professor Howard Winant will direct a new program, "New Racial Studies in the Age of Obama." It will create a network of UC scholars who teach and study race issues. The program was awarded $1.73 million over five years.
"Enormous transformations are occurring in racial dynamics – not only in the momentous 2008 election, but in the transition to a U.S. national demographic of a 'majority-minority' society," said Winant. In 2000, minorities made up more than half of California's population, and according to projections the entire U.S. will become "majority-minority" around 2042.
Researchers will examine the implications of this shift for social policy, political processes and overall socioeconomic status. Their work could spark important conversations about the problems and promises of America's changing demography, said Winant. "UC is uniquely situated to play a positive role."
Far-reaching results expected
UC has committed to funding these interdisciplinary projects for up to five years but Vice President Beckwith noted that the exact amount of funding will depend on how the university fares in the state budget process in the coming years.
"UC is always looking for new ways to take advantage of the wealth of research expertise throughout the system," said Beckwith. "By teaming the right experts, we have a unique opportunity to attack and solve some of the problems that are confronting the state.
"And because UC and California are leaders, results of the research could have great impact beyond the state as others in the country and world are experiencing similar issues and crises."
Andy Evangelista is research communications coordinator in the UC Office of the President's Integrated Communications group.