Urban Integrated Field Laboratories Will Equitably Address a Critical Scientific Knowledge Gap

There are major gaps in our scientific understanding of urban environments. They limit how much we know about their role in the climate system, and how to best develop effective and equitable ways to adapt to climate change. To address these gaps in a socially responsible way, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science has launched the Urban Integrated Field Laboratories (Urban IFL) initiative. Recently, we announced $66 million in awards to establish three new Urban IFLs that will focus on improving our understanding of urban systems. They will also expand our knowledge of how those systems and the climate interact with each other. One field laboratory is in Chicago, one is in Baltimore, and one is on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The Urban IFL initiative is a demonstration of our commitment to ensure that publicly funded science is truly inclusive. The public provides the resources we need to enable scientific discoveries and inform critical societal solutions. As a result, we have an obligation to ensure that our funding and our science fully include the communities where *all* of the public works and lives.

These Urban IFLs will expand our knowledge of urban climate systems. They will also help us use this knowledge in ways that will empower historically underserved and disadvantaged communities that live in urban environments. The research conducted in the Urban IFLs will address questions related to the welfare of people and ecosystems in urban communities. For example, researchers may examine the effects of heat islands and air pollution. The research will also inform neighborhoods in their planning to prevent and adapt to climate change. For example, research on green spaces such as parks can help us understand how they can minimize the impact of heat waves on city residents as well as provide environmental benefits.

Understanding the mix of influences in urban environments, from people to buildings to the atmosphere, requires a mix of researchers. We need researchers with a diversity of scientific expertise and personal experience. Those researchers include scientists from national labs and large research institutions, as well as members of urban communities and the institutions that serve them. Researchers and students from academic institutions that are historically underrepresented in the portfolio of activities supported by federal science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) funding form the core membership of the scientific teams that will be working to realize the goals of the Urban IFL program. These institutions include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), and other emerging research institutions. The partnerships formed in these Urban IFL projects will provide opportunities to train and support a diverse and thriving next generation of U.S. scientists. 

More broadly, the Urban IFLs will make climate and Earth systems models more accurate, while ensuring that the efforts that go in to developing them are inclusive. As increasingly large numbers of people live in urban environments, it is essential to understand how the atmospheric and climatic conditions differ in urban areas compared to suburban or rural ones.

In the long term, these data will improve how well computer models can predict the impacts of climate change. It can also inform how to minimize them. If we don’t fully understand what’s going on in these environments now, we can’t simulate what will happen in the future. For example, knowing what parts of a city are most vulnerable to flooding can help planners decide where to place clean energy infrastructure. Overall, these data will help these models be a better, more realistic reflection of what our world is like now and in the future. 

These Urban IFLs are critical to our efforts to train the next generation of scientists that look like America. The science-based solutions that will flow from these newly funded studies will center the perspectives of minoritized communities.

Belonging, access, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are important in STEM. Simply, they are the right thing to do. We as scientists and decision-makers have the obligation to make climate science – and science as a whole – fair and equitable.

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