Husker ecologists forge international network focused on ag, climate resilience

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Husker ecologists forge international network focused on ag, climate resilience

Craig Allen and Tala Awada
Craig Allen and Tala Awada

Two University of Nebraska–Lincoln researchers are playing leadership roles in establishing a “network of networks” that unites some of North America’s most forward-thinking, interdisciplinary collaborations focused on agricultural and climate resilience and food and water security.

Husker ecologists Craig Allen and Tala Awada lead a team that recently received a four-year, $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to establish the Network for Integrated Agricultural Resilience Research, which is the first collaboration of its kind in the field. By sharing data, resources and expertise, affiliated researchers will generate new research paradigms that address the diversity and complexity of farming and agriculture in North America at a larger scale than was previously possible.

“With the kind of replication and long-term focus that these networks have, we expect to reveal dynamics that we otherwise couldn’t,” said Allen, professor of natural resources and director of Nebraska’s Center for Resilience in Agricultural Working Landscapes, or CRAWL. “Most ecological research is done on a square-meter spatial scale and a two- to three-year temporal scale. We want to do research on a much larger scale now that we’re in an era of big data and longer-term data series.”

The network unites the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service-funded Long-Term Agroecosystem Research Network, or LTAR; the Canada-based ResNet and the Agriculture Canada Living Labs Initiative; and the international, theory-focused Resilience Alliance. With $150,000 of additional funding from the University of Nebraska’s Collaboration Initiative program, Allen and Awada are expanding the network to include partners in Mexico, ensuring the network spans North America.

Though the specific focus of each participating network varies, they share the vision that collaboration is essential to pursuing global food security, Allen said. Working in isolation, no single network can effectively study the sustainability of modern agricultural practices in the face of external forces such as climate change, shifts in land use and changing social behavior. Together, they may be able to identify the tipping points at which agricultural systems are vulnerable to unwanted, destabilizing regime shifts — the transformation of a grassland into a forest, for example.

“Often, there’s a tradeoff between efficiency and resilience,” said Allen, who will serve as the network coordinator. “We’re interested in what that tradeoff is, and what those tradeoffs cost.”

Allen and Awada’s leadership in the new network underscores Nebraska’s commitment to research focused on climate resilience and sustainable food and water security, which are two of the university’s seven Grand Challenge thematic areas. It also highlights the university’s global leadership in the field of agricultural resilience: In addition to the CRAWL center, which is aimed at helping decision-makers use resilience theory to boost agricultural production, Nebraska is home to an NSF-funded resilience-focused graduate training program and a USDA-funded research project focused on increased rangeland production, among others.

Awada, associate dean and director in Nebraska’s Agricultural Research Division and professor of plant ecophysiology in the School of Natural Resources, took the lead in helping the network accomplish its initial goal of creating the Resilience Working Group within the LTAR network, for which she serves as a site co-lead for Nebraska. The working group will facilitate communication between the four member networks.

“Our diverse landowners and managers are interested in multiple outcomes on their land, and the involved networks will look beyond efficiency and profitability to include sustainability and resilience metrics and indicators across scales,” Awada said.

Network scientists will develop a research agenda focused on three trajectories. They’ll study heterogeneity and scale by exploring which attributes of agricultural systems bolster resilience; identify thresholds that may precede regime shifts; and pinpoint early warning signs of such shifts.

Their work in these areas is expected to lead to large-scale, interdisciplinary proposals that marshal the network’s wide range of expertise and access to data from organizations such as USDA’s Climate Hubs, NSF’s National Ecological Observatory Network and Ameriflux.

To flesh out the agenda, network scientists will conduct a comprehensive literature review to identify critical gaps in the research and launch a public website aimed at engaging the public and researchers outside the network. They plan to engage students and stakeholders, including tribal and underrepresented groups, throughout the process.

The researchers will collaborate through annual conferences, webinars, workshops and monthly meetings. Allen said the overarching goal is to build a sustainable network infrastructure and strong transdisciplinary collaborations that will long outlive the four years of the NSF grant.

“Hopefully, this network is just the beginning of multi-country, multi-institutional collaborations,” he said.

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