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Through proposed climate labs, Department of Energy reaches out to urban communities

Taking aim at two goals at once, the Department of Energy (DOE) wants to launch an initiative both to address the climate crisis and increase diversity in the U.S. scientific workforce. In its 2022 budget request to Congress, DOE requests funds to create urban integrated field laboratories (IFLs) that would gather climate data in cities and build bridges to urban communities, including by collaborating with minority-serving universities, such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

“I was surprised but thrilled to see the IFL language,” says Lucy Hutyra, a biogeochemist at Boston University. “Urban areas are radically understudied.” David Padgett, a geoscientist at Tennessee State University, an HBCU in Nashville, says, “This sounds like something I might want to collaborate on with my colleagues at TSU or Spelman” College, an HBCU in Atlanta.

The effort is timely, scientists say, as evidence suggests the impacts of climate change will often fall hardest on poorer urban communities. But collecting climate data in cities poses major challenges, and Black researchers stress that to really boost diversity, DOE will have to help minority institutions grow their research capacity.

The IFL concept originated with DOE’s biological and environmental research advisory committee, which in 2015 urged DOE to build such labs in cities especially sensitive to climate change: those in arid, mountainous, coastal, and agricultural environments. The DOE budget request adds a social dimension, noting that the labs will “incorporate environmental justice as a key tenet of research.” That language “is unusual,” says Bruce Hungate, an ecosystems scientist at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. “However, it absolutely reflects the direction the conversation is turning in environmental science. So, kudos to DOE.”

Other federal agencies already gather climate-related data in urban areas. The National Science Foundation supports 28 Long-Term Ecological Research sites, including stations in Baltimore and Phoenix, with one to be added in Minneapolis. The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sample air in various cities, and NOAA has long funded an atmospheric science lab at Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C. But such efforts have often focused on biology and local phenomena, scientists say.

In contrast, the IFLs would collect comprehensive data on the flows of energy, water, and airborne chemicals through complex urban environments and feed them into the department’s global climate models, says Sharlene Weatherwax, DOE’s associate director for biological and environmental research. Ultimately, she says, researchers hope to predict how climate variables such as temperature and precipitation will change on spatial scales of kilometers and temporal scales from 2 to 100 years. “We really care what will happen to climate where people live, and a big swath of that is urban.”

The agency plans to call for proposals and select sites for more than one IFL in 2022. Each would likely cost between $1 million and $10 million and involve a collaboration between some of DOE’s 17 national laboratories and local universities. The agency aims to engage with urban institutions it may not have worked with before, Weatherwax says. In a separate effort, DOE wants to begin planning for a national climate laboratory or center, to be sited at an HBCU or other minority-serving institution.

Methods used to collect climate data in environments such as forests and grasslands may not work well in urban areas, warns Hank Loescher, a biogeochemist and director of strategic development at Battelle. Tracking water in cities can be tricky because much of it flows through sewers, he notes, and monitoring gases such as methane requires extremely tall towers that cities may not allow. Researchers also lack a comprehensive theory of the urban environment, Loescher says. “They’re still figuring out what to measure and how to measure it.”

DOE must also recognize that urban institutions serving minority communities often lack the staff and infrastructure of wealthier universities, says Beverly Wright, a sociologist formerly at Dillard University (an HBCU) and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans. “Part of the program should be a focus on building capacity at these universities.”

If done poorly, IFLs could even perpetuate a “colonialist” relationship between majority and minority institutions, warns Everette Joseph, an atmospheric physicist who is director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. For example, he worries HBCUs might be relegated to a purely educational role in IFLs. “There’ll be an emphasis on sending your students to the lab and no thinking about how you build capacity until it’s exploitative,” he says.

Scientists acknowledge that DOE is taking a political risk in linking climate research with environmental justice. DOE research enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, but that’s because legislators view it as an engine of economic competitiveness. Weatherwax says she’s not worried about a political backlash. “We’re hoping that people will understand that  [environmental justice] means: ‘This could be you.’ ”

*Correction, 24 June, 1 p.m.: The story has been updated to reflect that Beverly Wright is no longer with Dillard University and that Joseph Everette is director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.