By Steve Wall

Steve WallSteve Wall is a policy research associate with the UNC Institute for the Environment and the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory.

In the summer of 2016 the North Carolina General Assembly established and funded the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory (Collaboratory) at UNC-Chapel Hill (UNC).  The Collaboratory was created to utilize and disseminate the environmental research expertise of the University of North Carolina system for practical use by state and local government.

My role as a policy associate at the UNC Institute for the Environment has allowed me to support the operations of the Collaboratory since its formation.  The Collaboratory is playing an important role in leading research projects that address the most critical environmental and natural resource issues in the state.  The Collaboratory is also increasing the capacity of UNC to engage with decision-makers at the state and local levels to ensure that timely research is informing management and policy choices.

In September of this year the leadership of the Collaboratory presented to the UNC Board of Trustees describing its current work and future plans.  The presentation highlighted several of the research studies and projects that the Collaboratory is funding and managing across North Carolina.

During the 2016 and 2017 legislative sessions the General Assembly directed the Collaboratory to lead studies on specific topics, including:

  • Evaluating water quality and nutrient pollution in Jordan and Falls Lakes;
  • Developing plans to grow the state’s aquaculture industry;
  • Creating a framework to manage environmental data and permitting information;
  • Studying the various aspects of energy storage technologies and policies.

In each of these studies, the Collaboratory pulls together multi-disciplinary teams of university researchers to address the full scope of the project at hand.  For example, the UNC nutrient management study of Jordan and Falls Lakes noted above involves more than two dozen faculty, staff, and graduate students.  These researchers include water quality scientists, experts in financing pollution controls, and land use specialists.

Collaboratory projects are underway from the coast to the mountains.  For a description of each of the Collaboratory projects noted above visit:  https://collaboratory.unc.edu/

In addition to the legislatively mandated studies, the Collaboratory is also supporting a number of research projects across the state to help identify real world solutions to environmental challenges.

For example, in 2016 the Collaboratory committed more than $300,000 to initiate the Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative, which is comprised of a team of researchers from UNC and N.C. State working with several towns in eastern North Carolina to rebuild their communities.  The Collaboratory is also managing several other research projects, such as wildfire mitigation, safe drinking water, and flood plain buyouts.

Importantly, each of the Collaboratory research studies involves a component of stakeholder engagement.  This work communicates the intended purpose of the research and allows for a feedback mechanism from industry representatives, local government officials, community groups, and the general public to provide input and ensure that the research is focusing on the right questions.  While the degree and formal nature of this component varies depending on the study, it is a critical piece of the Collaboratory’s work as we strive to ensure that the research results in practical outcomes.

Although the Collaboratory has been in operation for just over a year, it has already strengthened the connection between researchers and policy-makers.  The Collaboratory represents just one example of how UNC is having a positive impact across the state by serving the citizens of North Carolina.

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