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Funding the Road to Research

This article was originally printed in the November 2005 issue of CLASnotes.

Interdisciplinary collaborations boost federal grants for CLAS

Dreaming about roads is what keeps Stephen Perz awake at night. The associate professor of sociology has received five grants to date to help solve a simple question with complex answers: What happens when you build a road in the middle of the Amazon?

“I came out of graduate school as a social demographer studying environmental issues,” he says. “The more I studied various populations, the more I started to see the larger picture in terms of how populations use and, in some cases, abuse the land, and how they impact the environment and vice versa.”

Since 2001, Perz has collaborated with colleagues in many disciplines playing the research grant lottery and hitting the jackpot five times, receiving more than $800,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA to fund research in Amazonian portions of Brazil, Bolivia and Peru.

Perz makes up a growing number of CLAS faculty who are applying for and often receiving federally funded research dollars. For the 2004–2005 fiscal year, CLAS experienced a 26 percent increase in federal awards, and the current fiscal year is no different according to the college’s associate director of research and grants, Margaret Fields.

“External funding awards from federal agencies has continued to increase during the first quarter of the new fiscal year,” she says. “We have a total of $13,424,934 from federal agencies that represents 90 percent of total awards to date.”

UF Geographer Abe Goldman interviews farmers who live near Kibale National Park in Uganda.
UF Geographer Abe Goldman interviews farmers who live near Kibale National Park in Uganda.

UF Sociologist Stephen Perz stands in front of a sign in Assis, Brazil near the tri-national frontier where Brazil, Bolivia and Peru meet.
UF Sociologist Stephen Perz stands in front of a sign in Assis, Brazil near the tri-national frontier where Brazil, Bolivia and Peru meet. At right is the the TransOceanic Highway before it was widened and paved. When completed, it will link the tri-national frontier to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Last year, UF garnered $494 million in research funding, and CLAS accounted for roughly 10 percent with $47.4 million, behind the Health Science Center with $257.1 million (52 percent), the College of Engineering with $63.3 million (13 percent) and IFAS with $84.4 million (17 percent). All other UF colleges and units earned a combined $41.8 million (8 percent).

“When research grants are talked about in a liberal arts and sciences college, the traditional hard sciences tend to get more attention,” says CLAS Associate Dean for Research Lou Guillette. “While they do bring in big dollars, there is a growing trend in the number of faculty within the social sciences and humanities applying for and obtaining federal grants, and many times their research proposals are quite interdisciplinary, pooling expertise from across departments and colleges, which I think accounts for much of their success.”

Perz is working with colleagues in CLAS, including geographer Jane Southworth, as well as faculty and graduate students in other colleges at UF who meet regularly as the “ROADIES” working group. Perz also has colleagues at other US universities, including Michigan State and Columbia, as well as several universities in South America, all teaming up in what he describes as a complex series of projects.

“Essentially, we’re looking at how, where and why people build roads, and what new roads and road paving will mean for the future of the Amazon in terms of positive and negative social and environmental processes,” explains Perz. While roads in the Amazon are generally built to gain access to natural resources, the specific resources sought, the benefits they bring to local communities, and the ecological implications of exploiting them differ from place to place.

“Roads help people earn livelihoods, but they can also cause social conflicts and degrade the ecosystems on which local residents depend,” he says. The Amazon has enormous biological diversity, so road-building projects are prompting new conservation efforts, making the region especially important for us to be studying right now.”

A section Perz is particularly interested in is known as the MAP region, made up of areas in three countries that are dealing with road-related issues—Madre de Dios (Peru), Acre (Brazil) and Pando (Bolivia). “When the TransOceanic Highway is finished there, the MAP region will be linked to both Atlantic and Pacific ports, and through them exposed to the global economy, which is hungry for natural resources.”

Perz says MAP is the most biodiverse region in the world, and the stage is now set for unprecedented changes there. “The question is whether changes facilitated by roads will improve or worsen forest conservation, economic performance and social equity. MAP now has a social movement to address these issues through participatory environmental planning, and that movement is calling for more research on which it can base its planning proposals to ensure the best possible outcomes.”

More research is what Perz would like to pursue, as well as focus on establishing networks among scientists. “There is a clear science agenda here. We’re working with faculty and students from four universities in Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. There are many social actors in this complex scene, so we have to get the social scientists down there talking to the botanists, and the residents talking to the scientists, and the politicians listening to and understanding the science.”

2004-2005 CLAS Research Awards
(Courtesy Margaret Fields)

The social actors in UF Geography Professor Abe Goldman’s research portray a wilder side—chimpanzees, monkeys and an occasional elephant. Goldman, Southworth and UF geographer Michael Binford, as well as former UF zoologists Colin and Lauren Chapman, have received a two-year $166,000 grant from the NSF, with additional funding from CLAS and UF. They are working with colleagues at the Universities of Colorado and North Carolina and with Ugandan and Tanzanian researchers to study farmers and others in landscapes around national parks in Tanzania and Uganda.

The group has chosen Kibale National Park in western Uganda and Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania, and the research includes extensive interviews with farmers and other land users, surveys of land use and land cover, analysis of satellite imagery dating back over three decades, and sampling of plant and animal species in the same areas to assess biodiversity conditions outside the parks. 

“One of the innovative features of the project is the use of a uniform spatial sampling scheme for data collection across the disciplinary components of the project,” explains Goldman. “Farmer interviews, surveys, and biological sampling are all based in a set of randomly selected nine hectare ‘superpixels,’ which are randomly dispersed through the landscapes of the research areas.”

Goldman credits the group’s interdisciplinary approach to obtaining the grant on the first try. “By combining work by geographers, anthropologists, and zoologists, I think we were quite successful in integrating the various disciplinary components,” says Goldman. “This is one of the critical features of a successful interdisciplinary proposal, and it requires a lot of time and usually many iterations of working together. It took us more than a year of working together to complete the proposal, but the end result paid off.”

At the end of the day, Perz says his sleepless nights are for a good cause. “I’m doing all this to advance a model of environmental science that is interdisciplinary enough to take the social sciences seriously,” he says. “Ideally, research should be paired with democratic processes for environmental governance, as facilitated by popular social movements to which policymakers will listen. This means that research must be directly linked with investments in building regional universities to strengthen their ties to stakeholders, politicians and state agencies. Otherwise, governance, sustainability and similar notions about a sound environmental future are pretty words, but nothing more.”

—Allyson A. Beutke

Photos Courtesy of Abe Goldman, Stephen Perz

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