National Science Foundation awards URI $19 million to establish statewide coastal ecology research consortium

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-2116 |

KINGSTON, R.I. – September 20, 2017 – The National Science Foundation has awarded the University of Rhode Island a $19 million grant to establish a statewide research consortium to study the effects of climate variability on coastal ecosystems. The funding builds on more than $30 million of previous NSF funding through its Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which aims to strengthen the state’s research competitiveness and fund workforce development initiatives.

The state of Rhode Island, through Commerce Rhode Island, has committed an additional $3.8 million toward the initiative over the next five years, which will be used to provide collaborative grants and support workforce development.

“This landmark grant will enable researchers from throughout the state to address some of the most pressing issues of our time while also providing economic development benefits to our innovation economy,” said URI President David M. Dooley. “At the same time, it will further position the Ocean State as a leader in the study of climate change and coastal ecosystems.”

The grant will establish the Rhode Island Consortium for Coastal Ecology, Assessment, Innovation and Modeling, which will assess the impacts of climate variability on coastal ecosystems, create innovative technologies for detecting those changes, and build computer models to predict and plan for changes in coastal ecology.

URI is the project lead on the grant and will work in collaboration with a statewide network made up of researchers at Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, Rhode Island College, Bryant University, Providence College, Roger Williams University and Salve Regina University.

To accomplish the goals of the consortium, it will create a state-of-the-art Bay Observatory, including high-tech instrumentation and wireless data transmission, to collect real-time information at high resolution about the changing environmental conditions in Narragansett Bay. That data and imagery will be accessible to scientists and the public.

“We need to improve our ability to measure changes in climate variability and nutrient pollution, in terms of both time and space,” said Geoff Bothun, URI professor of chemical engineering and the grant’s principal investigator. “More accurate measurements at lower detection limits with greater frequency and finer spatial resolution will help dramatically to predict and plan for what is to come.”

Co-principal investigators on the grant are Breea Govenar, associate professor of biology at Rhode Island College; Jeffrey Morgan, professor of medicine and engineering at Brown University and co-director of its Biotechnology Graduate Program; Neal Overstrom, director of the Nature Lab at Rhode Island School of Design; and Lewis Rothstein, professor of oceanography at URI.

“The grant enables us to bring together research teams from around the state who have been studying various aspects of the bay for years,” Morgan said. “We think the collaborative approach we’re developing here in Rhode Island will be a model for the study of coastal resources elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world.”

The research funded through the grant will include studies to assess the ecological complexity of the coastal environment and how organisms interact with each other; the development of sensors to detect the nutrient pollution that contributes to harmful algae blooms; the creation of models that combine the biology, chemistry and physics of the coastal environment to predict environmental changes; and efforts to combine natural scientific data and models with socioeconomic models to inform decision making.

“The consortium has been carefully designed to steward our most precious natural resource, Narragansett Bay, in the face of both natural climate variability and human-induced climate change,” said Rothstein. “To accomplish this, we will demand that our predictive natural science and socioeconomic computer models are fully integrated with the measurements that has, and will come from our Bay Observatory. All of the forecasts will be analyzed and visualized in ways that will provide public and private decision-makers with the tools they need to optimize their decisions for the benefit of all Rhode Islanders.”

“RISD’s ongoing collaboration with the local EPSCoR community brings the unique critical perspectives of studio-based inquiry to scientific investigation, with artists and designers contributing to visual communication, ecological design, bio-imaging and other initiatives statewide,” said Overstrom. “We look forward to creating new partnerships, expanding our research capacity, and broadening opportunities for student engagement over the next five years.”

“The primarily undergraduate institutions in Rhode Island are highly valued partners in this effort,” added Govenar, “and the framework of the consortium provides several mechanisms to encourage authentic collaborations among researchers from all member institutions and foster new community partnerships.”

Another emphasis of the project will be the commercialization of the research outcomes through the formation of an academic-industry partnership enabling the scientists to learn about the challenges facing the marine and defense industries, for instance, and share with them some of the research discoveries and technologies. It will also be a way to connect students with potential employment opportunities.

Additional workforce development elements of the grant include the expansion of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program into a year-round initiative, the funding of 40 to 50 graduate fellowships, and the hiring of additional junior faculty and post-doctoral researchers.

“We’ll be training the next generation of the STEAM workforce in Rhode Island,” Bothun said. “We’re really trying to populate the ranks at all levels with this grant.”

EPSCoR is designed to assist those states that have historically received less than 0.75 percent of NSF research funding annually. In 2006, URI received an initial grant that established shared research facilities for genomics, proteomics and marine life sciences. A second grant in 2010 capitalized on that infrastructure, enabling researchers to study how marine organisms are adapting to climate change.