Computer science and environmental sustainability are not often associated with each other. But the new Institute for Computational Sustainability at Cornell hopes to change that, with the help of $10 million from the National Science Foundation.
According to Prof. David Shmoys, operations research and information engineering, associate director of the institute, the center came into existence under the NSF’s “Expeditions in Computing” program. Upwards of 100 proposals were submitted to the NSF by different institutions. The NSF then narrowed the proposals down to four finalists, each of which was awarded a $10 million grant.
“Our vision is that computer scientists can, and should, play a key role in increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the way we manage and allocate our natural resources, while enriching and transforming Computer Science,” said Prof. Carla Gomes, computer and information science and applied economics and management.
Gomes, who serves as director of the institute, said that because she has appointments in computer science, computing and information science and applied economics and management, she has been exposed to different problems related to sustainability issues and has a good perspective on how computer science could make a difference.
“Problems concerning the environment and sustainability are optimization problems, which computer science is good at solving,” Gomes said.
While the institute is based at Cornell, it is multi-institutional and includes researchers from Oregon State University, Howard University, Bowdoin College, the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Conservation Fund.
According to Gomes, the term “computational sustainability” was almost unheard of before the creation of the institute. She hopes that the institute will play a part in eventually making computer science a field of study, where computational models are used to work through the complex problems of sustainability.
“We also want to advance the field of computer science,” Shmoys said. “The scale of the kinds of problems that are in this domain is a wonderful test bed for pushing our understanding of computation.”
The research of Prof. John Guckenheimer, mathematics, is an example of the kind of work the institute is looking to foster. Guckenheimer studies mathematical models of how things evolve in time, which can be applied to a broad range of areas. In this situation, he would look to apply it to sustainability.
According to Gomes, the institute has been working closely with the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future to bring people across campus together.
“Carla Gomes is forging as many connections to sustainability activities at Cornell as possible, so that new computational methods can be applied to challenging problems as quickly and broadly as possible,” said Prof. Francis DiSalvo, physical science, director of CCSF.
The interdisciplinary team working with Gomes includes many members of the Cornell faculty from departments ranging from applied economics and management to biological and environmental engineering.
Prof. Bart Selman, computer science, co-investigator for the proposal, said that most of the money from the grant will be used to fund student research. The bulk of the grant will go to graduate student thesis work as well as some undergraduate research projects, with the goal of bringing together students from many different areas.
“I think it really presents a unique opportunity for economists, applied ecologists, mathematicians and computer scientists to get together to look at some of the problems confronting the world in terms of sustainability and research management, and to try to think about how methods and approaches from computer science might be used to bring their research abilities to answering these problems,” said Prof. Jon Conrad, applied economics and management, co-investigator for the proposal.
Gomes said that the institute aims to have a broad impact in five different areas. They will aim to alleviate key environmental problems facing the planet, create the new field of computational sustainability and integrate research and education via outreach programs. They also want to make foundational contributions to computer science and to increase diversity by causing the field to appeal to a greater range of people.
“The problems that we are going to study are so unique that they will lead to fundamental advances and change a bit of the image of computer science to show that we do care about the environment and other related issues,” Gomes said. “I am confident we’ll make great progress.”