A Brief History of Princeton Environmental Institute
The seeds of the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) were planted in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the world grew increasingly aware of the environmental consequences of industrialization. Challenges posed by the growth in human populations, loss of biodiversity, fragility of nutrient cycles, air and water pollution, waste disposal, dwindling energy resources, and other environmental and sustainability problems engaged a growing number of citizens.
In 1970, Earth Day was celebrated for the first time; President Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and the United States Congress passed the Clean Air Act. By 1971, several teaching and research programs on environmental topics had emerged at Princeton University. During this time, the University, under President William G. Bowen’s leadership, created a Council on Environmental Studies to foster and coordinate such activities as well as to provide an informal focus for advising graduate students, examining environmental practices across campus and sponsoring public lectures, seminars, and colloquia.
“Serious study of the environment requires that we both conceptualize problems and devise research and teaching strategies that cross disciplinary boundaries. Moreover, because the scientific issues involved focus on the capacity and adaptiveness of global environmental systems, they must be studied through cross-discipline approaches that not only draw on resources among scientific disciplines but that depend on exploration of alternative ideologies and values… ”
— President Harold T. Shapiro
Over the next two decades, an increasing number of faculty in the natural sciences, engineering, social sciences and humanities focused attention on the environment in their teaching and research and began to express an interest in creating a school for environmental studies. Then University President Harold Shapiro created an external advisory committee to explore the idea. A consensus emerged that there was a need for a coordinated effort in environmental teaching and research at Princeton and that the University was in a unique position to develop an interdisciplinary program that would break new ground.
Princeton’s strengths included:
- A world-class faculty with expertise in science, engineering and policy with research already focused on such issues as climate change, biodiversity, oceanography, renewable energy, and energy efficiency;
- Proximity to NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), the premier national center for modeling climate change;
- State-of-the art research and educational facilities;
- A commitment to working across disciplinary lines to facilitate exchange of knowledge and advance problem solving.
In January 1991, the Council on Environmental Studies concluded that Princeton had the intellectual resources to play a major role in research toward the solution of environmental problems. The Council recommended strengthening and integrating the environmental research of four "clusters" of traditional disciplines, namely science, technology, policy, and human values.
In July 1991, President Harold Shapiro appointed a Committee on Environmental Studies to explore how best to strengthen Princeton’s environmental research and to report its conclusions to the Provost. These deliberations led to the establishment of the undergraduate Certificate Program in Environmental Studies that same year.
The next significant step in the evolution of environmental studies at Princeton was the creation of the Princeton Environmental Initiative in 1993 to provide a focus for research, instruction, and outreach in environmental science, technology, and public policy. The outcome of the Initiative was the founding of the Princeton Environmental Institute in 1994.
"We have in the Princeton Environmental Institute a remarkable interdisciplinary group of scientists, engineers, and policy experts... who are collaboratively working together in order to identify some of the most important issues and approach them from both scientific, engineering, and policy perspectives."
— President Shirley M. Tilghman
PEI has been identified as one of Princeton’s highest priorities with a continuing mission to bridge environmentally focused research and teaching in the natural sciences, social sciences, engineering, and humanities. The University has committed resources for PEI and the Program in Environmental Studies and contributions from donors have helped to establish faculty positions, post doctoral and graduate fellowships, and other institute resources, including funds to support undergraduate teaching and research.
Drawing strength from more than 90 members of the Princeton faculty with participation representing 25 academic disciplines, PEI is recognized as the center of interdisciplinary environmental research, education, and outreach at Princeton.