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A $20 Million Boost for Oklahoma Research

Friday, December 18, 2020

A new $20 million National Science Foundation grant, administered by the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), will support interdisciplinary research that aims to benefit Oklahoma.

“The people of Oklahoma are facing complex problems at the intersection of land use, water availability and infrastructure, and this project aims to answer whether an approach combining atmospheric and land sciences with social science can generate sustainable solutions,” said NSF EPSCoR program officer Chinonye Nnakwe Whitley. “The project also offers the potential to promote STEM education and efforts to broaden the participation of women and underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities in STEM disciplines.”

Dr. Raymond Huhnke, the project director of Oklahoma EPSCoR and an OSU Regents Professor, is the principal investigator for the grant and will oversee the researchers.

During the project’s five-year span, a team of 34 researchers from Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma, University of Tulsa, Southwestern Oklahoma State University, Langston University, East Central University and Noble Research Institute plan to develop and test science-based solutions for complex problems involving land, water and infrastructure.

“The research team will identify the most pressing societal problems associated with water availability, land use and infrastructure facing Oklahoma, and with input from residents and policymakers, we will develop practical solutions at the junctions of these related issues,” Huhnke said.

These problems include anticipating extreme weather occurrences as well as short- and long-term climate effects, including drought and associated wildfires; addressing the encroachment of woody species into rangelands; improving marginal quality waters, especially those produced from oilfields; and enhancing the resiliency of our water and energy infrastructure, he added.

“This project is novel in both its design and vision,” Huhnke said. “It is a social science-led, multidisciplinary collaboration among social, physical, biological, engineering and computational scientists from institutions across the state.” Co-lead researchers are Drs. Hank Jenkins-Smith and Carol Silva, co-associate directors of the OU National Institute for Risk and Resilience and professors of political science at OU.

“The project is unique in that it couples a systematic, ongoing engagement with Oklahoma citizens and opinion leaders with hard science,” Jenkins-Smith said. “By working handin- hand with our fellow Oklahomans, researchers will utilize alternative solutions that accommodate the pressing needs of citizens, decisionmakers and the environment.”

Huhnke anticipates this project will have an impact early.

“I believe by communicating with stakeholders early in the project, we will set the proper tone and environment that will lead to early alternative solutions,” he said “As an engineer, I was trained to use ‘hard’ sciences to find solutions to problems. When I entered the workforce, I soon realized that the best hard-science solution might not be the most practical when the human component is considered.”

Huhnke hopes to bring social science considerations into the process early to lead to broad societal acceptance and success, he said.

“We will be building research capacity over the life of the project. This encompasses the hiring of additional researchers, purchasing of equipment, and providing educational programs,” he said. “One of the many outcomes of this investment by NSF is to make Oklahoma more competitive in attracting federal, state and private research funds.

“It’s important to note that we have a strong outreach and education mission as part of this project,” Huhnke said. “As with prior NSF EPSCoR projects, we work closely with educational institutions at all levels across the state to deliver project-based as well as STEM-related programs to all age groups. We have plans to reach over 150,000 persons during this five-year project.”

To Huhnke, the motivation to work on a project like this is clear.

“For me, that’s easy … to improve the quality of life for current as well as future generations,” he said.

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