EDUCATION:

University builds new curriculum around climate change and solar power

LONDON -- A university in the north of England, a region not renowned for its sunshine, is tearing down walls between departments so that creating new breeds of rice and developing more efficient solar cells are part of a core that takes climate change research from the specific to the general and puts the sun at the heart of sustainable living.

The University of Sheffield's Project Sunshine aims to make often isolated research projects in areas as diverse as biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, hydrology, economics and even sociology part of a coherent whole to prepare students for a future in a climate-changed world.

"Project Sunshine is to do with corralling our research to do with sunshine around food and energy security," said Tony Ryan, the University of Sheffield's vice chancellor and project founder. "Coal and oil are depleting. There might be enough around to keep us going for another 1,000 years, but we can't keep putting it up into the atmosphere because it is burning the climate."

He added, "So the corollary of all this is that we have to go back to living on sunshine. We have to go back to being a sunshine-driven economy where we get all our energy from the sun -- we don't use buried sunshine."

The ambitious project is driven by forecasts that the world's population will hit 9 billion people by midcentury, all needing food and water, and that energy demand will jump 50 percent in the next 20 years and potentially triple by 2050 to 30 billion watts.

But at the same time, natural resources are depleting rapidly, so the need is to produce more from less in a world whose climate is changing in unpredictable and sometimes catastrophic ways due to carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels for power and transport, with more droughts and floods and altered weather patterns.

Linking in the social sciences

Ryan's vision is to harness the university's diverse academic research systems and place them in the global context of how to prepare plants, animals and people to survive and thrive on a dramatically changing planet.

"We have gone all the way through science from maths to physics to chemistry to molecular biology or organismal biology to ecology and back to mathematics again. Then there are a whole load of loops outside that circle such as how DNA repairs itself after damage by the sun," he said.

"In psychology, we have hired people who are interested in risk perception, how people think about the future in terms of food and energy security," he added. "And while we, as scientists, can come up with all sorts of fancy solutions to technical problems -- especially if we hook up with our engineers on wind and waves and nuclear -- the big issue for us isn't necessarily the technical solution but the social and economic. So we have moved Project Sunshine out into social sciences -- into economics, sociology and management."

The aim is to put specific projects into a larger context. In the Philippines, the university is doing research to produce a new strain of rice that grows faster and produces more crops -- a vital outcome in a region of the world where changed rainfall patterns have hit rice production. It is also trying to develop new strains of drought- and disease-resistant staple foods such as potatoes and cereals.

"To put it very crudely, you turbocharge rice, so you get more rice for less input, you can sneak an extra harvest a year in. That needs genetic modification, different farming methods," Ryan said. "We have a whole host of people in animal and plant sciences who are working on very specific projects with regards to plant and animal breeding.

"Likewise, the people who work on photovoltaics have a goal of a 10 percent efficient, single-layer organic photovoltaic panel. We have had a number of projects funded and aimed towards that. The main thrust now is taking what we have already learned and scaling up so we can make photovoltaics with a reasonably high efficiency very cheaply over huge areas."

Breaking the boundaries of research

He added, "Each of the research areas has its own short- to medium-term goals. But it is about doing it so it can be passed on to others so it can be turned into a technology."

But there is an elephant in the room, a subject that is rarely mentioned and, when it is, tends to generate highly emotional responses: population growth.

"Prior to 1900, no one had lived with the Earth's population doubling in their lifetime. My dad is 72. He has seen the Earth's population increase by a factor of six in his lifetime," Ryan said. "The issue of population control is a fundamental question that has to be faced. We will have to see how the 'one child' policy turns out in China, whether there is enormous social damage being done there."

The challenge is to prepare for the predicted sharp rise in the number of mouths to feed on the planet in barely a generation, but government inertia remains an obstacle, Ryan added. Another is getting research funds that cross traditional department lines.

While various research-funding government agencies are prepared to look at proposals specific to their own fields -- even in the context of slashed budgets as the global economy struggles out of the 2008 recession -- those funders develop blinkers when it comes to anything that crosses disciplines, he said.

"The response has been patchy. The reason is that it is often difficult to engage across the boundaries of the research funders. They are still extremely insular. While we have broken down our disciplinary boundaries to attack this really grand challenge of how do we provide the fuel for the economy and the food for the people, they have not," he said.