Dream big and stay true.

These words of wisdom were shared with Karen Roberto, founding director of the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment (ISCE), when she accepted the challenge of developing the third research investment institute at Virginia Tech 10 years ago.

What began as an 18-month assignment has grown into a decade-long endeavor of designing faculty research support programs, brokering partnerships, and facilitating interdisciplinary scholarship that has paid dividends. Since 2007 projects at the institute have garnered more than $32 million in external funding, at least 24 scholarly books and more than 100 journal articles, and numerous community collaborations and policy outcomes.

To celebrate this milestone, more than 70 faculty from eight colleges and 28 departments gathered for the institute’s 10-year anniversary during a two-hour event on Jan. 23.

“ISCE is the institute ‘home’ for those of us on campus in the behavioral sciences,” said Martha Ann Bell, a professor of psychology in the College of Science and a researcher affiliated with the institute. “It was a pleasure to celebrate all the exciting research that had its start with the institute and to know that we have the institute and Karen as advocates for our work.”

During the event’s program, Roberto, University Distinguished Professor of human development in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, reviewed the institute’s many accomplishments and reaffirmed commitment to supporting the social and behavioral sciences.

“ISCE was tasked with strengthening the university’s competitive position for securing external funding by faculty engaged in research that addresses individual and social transformation,” said Roberto, who spoke on the institute’s history. “Over 235 faculty have benefited from the financial and technical support for targeted, multi- and interdisciplinary research.”

During her talk, Roberto acknowledged several founding stakeholders who were present, including James Boland, professor emeritus of the School of Public and International Affairs; Lay Nam Chang, former dean of the College of Science and professor of physics; Karen DePauw, vice president and dean for graduate education; Timothy Luke, University Distinguished Professor in political science; and Jerry Niles, dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

“The institute was directed to have a presence in the National Capital Region as well as in Blacksburg,” Roberto said, resulting in her long-time partnership with David Orden, director of ISCE’s global issues initiative and professor of agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Orden has developed the institute’s Research Support Program and provides oversight for the Middle East Small Grants Program. These programs encourage faculty to develop international collaborations and research, such as an age-friendly community initiative in Canada and South Korea, an investigation into the politics and economy of pension financing in Latin America, and studies investigating environmental change and conflict in the Middle East. These projects “reinforce the Beyond Boundaries vision of the university,” Orden said. 

Roberto also described some of ISCE’s programs and services, such as its signature scholars program and its support for several Virginia Tech centers, including the Center for Gerontology, the Center for Public Health Practice and Research, and the Center for Communicating Science. All seven centers affiliated with the institute are engaged in research and community-based outreach efforts.

Over the years, ISCE has funded many diverse, interdisciplinary projects, including an intergenerational obesity initiative that  brought together more than 30 faculty from across the university; a digital humanities project spearheaded by faculty in history, English, and computer science that studied the 1918 Flu Pandemic; and research exploring resilience in the aftermath of such natural disasters as Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy. The latter project included faculty from business information technology, urban affairs and planning, geosciences, geography, engineering, gerontology, statistics, and others. A complete listing of ISCE-supported projects is available on the institute’s website.

“Through ISCE’s grant, we built an interdisciplinary team, including colleagues from many different backgrounds. When the project ended, our team stayed, grew, and continued on with other projects. I am really grateful for the seed ISCE planted at the beginning that has made all of these possible,” said Yang Zhang, an associate professor of urban affairs and planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies who is a member of one of the natural disasters research teams.

As Roberto wrapped up her remarks, she reiterated that, “ISCE will continue to be an inclusive enterprise that supports and advocates for faculty who align themselves and their work with issues germane to critical human and societal concerns, regardless of their disciplinary home or department.” She applauded the faculty for their “talent, heart, and courage to pursue solutions to complex contemporary issues that transform the lives of people and places.”

In keeping with the commitment to behavioral and social sciences, the evening’s keynote speaker was Wendy Naus, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to promoting social and behavioral science research.

Naus provided a national perspective on future federal funding: “In these challenging times, the need for the outputs of social science research has never been greater. It is on all of us to talk about it to anyone who will listen.”

Naus acknowledged the current contentious budget wrangling in Congress and the ebb and flow of lawmaker support for social and behavioral science research. While the future is always uncertain, Naus does not anticipate any sharp cuts to social science research funding but expects flat budgets to be the new normal for the time being. And, although the current federal research funding outlook is not as bright as in the past, Naus is encouraged by the recent collaboration between social and bench scientists, which provides a stronger voice for science advocacy to policymakers and government officials.

“The sciences — all sciences — are now working together to ensure the best possible future for American innovation,” she said, “and I don’t see these new partnerships coming unglued anytime in the near future. We’re all in this together.”

Written by Yancey Crawford


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