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The Pennsylvania Consortium for
Interdisciplinary Environmental Policy (PCIEP):
An Organization To Encourage Cooperation Among Government and Institutions of Higher Education To Solve Interdisciplinary Environmental and Sustainable Development Problems

Donald A. Brown, Esq.
Acting Director of the Pennsylvania Consortium for
Interdisciplinary Environmental Policy


Global warming, loss of biological diversity, deforestation, threatened species and ecosystems, diminution of freshwater supplies and fisheries, and other challenging environmental and sustainable development problems of the twenty-first century are creating grave new threats to the health of humans and the ecological systems in which they live.

In addition to being technically and politically challenging, these problems raise fundamental questions regarding human values and ethics. For example, because decisions about complex environmental issues must often be made in the face of scientific uncertainty, ethical questions regarding who should have the burden of proof frequently arise. The question, “Who should have the burden of proof?,” raises ethical considerations but it is often viewed through a narrow political rather than ethical lens. These problems also commonly force decision-makers to consider how humans should value plants and animals that may be threatened by human activity. Yet in day-to-day decision making, these value laden questions are often considered in very limited ways-through the use of such techniques as risk assessment or cost-benefit analysis-that tend to minimize or eliminate ethical considerations. Although these analytical tools may be helpful for some purposes, their ethical limitations are not often understood. For this reason, there is a need to openly integrate ethical considerations into day-to-day environmental and sustainable development decision making.

These problems also regularly raise technical questions that cannot be addressed by our current scientific understanding. Contemporary cutting edge problems including how to make decisions about toxic substances, ecological risk, human health impact, and climate change, are forcing governments to make decisions that: call on the frontiers of a variety of sciences, use state of the art mathematical models, synthesize information from a variety of technical disciplines, and make technical assumptions to fill theoretical and information gaps. For this reason, environmental and sustainable development problems create deep interdisciplinary challenges. Although it is common for environmental and sustainable development problems to raise scientific, engineering, legal, sociological, and ethical questions at many stages of problem analysis and solution formulation, members of different disciplines in higher education and various governmental levels rarely communicate across disciplines when considering these problems.

Despite the seriousness of these problems, governments and institutions of higher education have also rarely cooperated to resolve these problems. Although there is great expertise within institutions of higher education on these issues, the decentralized organizational structure of most colleges and universities, the fierce competition that often exists between departments, and an incentive system that rarely rewards interdisciplinary research, inhibits professionals in different disciplines from communicating and sharing insights about these important issues. Moreover, although many professionals in institutions of higher education have great passion for these issues, they often discuss them at a very abstract level that is not practically focused on real issues as they unfold. As a result, their expertise and insight are rarely considered in day-to-day decision-making.

On the other hand, governmental officials responsible for making decisions on these issues are usually unaware of scholarly expertise and insight that could be helpful in dealing with the many practical problems they are facing. Most of the scientific and technical nongovernmental experts that participate in day-to-day governmental decision-making are representatives of regulated parties that are concerned about proposed regulations or pending permits. These experts rarely participate in long-term strategic thinking about environmental and sustainable development problems.

Seeing the interdisciplinary environmental and sustainable development challenges ahead, and mindful of the expertise and interest in environmental and sustainable development issues that exists in many institutions of higher education, the Pennsylvania Departments of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) have worked with forty-one Pennsylvania colleges and universities to form the Pennsylvania Consortium for Interdisciplinary Environmental Policy (PCIEP).

This new organization has been created with the belief that governmental decision-makers and scholars must partner together with full interdisciplinary cooperation in order to sufficiently approach the complex environmental and sustainable development problems we are now facing. The Consortium has been created because the environmental problems of the twenty-first century will challenge both decision-makers and academic institutions in new ways. To meet these new challenges, environmental managers at local, regional, state, and federal levels will need to greatly enhance their technical expertise and integrate insights from such diverse fields as science, engineering, economics, law, ethics, education, and the humanities into their decision making. PCIEP colleges and universities with expertise in a variety of disciplines that are relevant to environmental and sustainable development policy formulation, will help PCIEP governmental decision-makers understand and respond to these new challenges. PCIEP environmental and sustainable development policy makers will assist colleges and universities in understanding how academic programs can be made more relevant to the pressing environmental and sustainable development problems governments are currently facing. PCIEP institutions of higher education can also learn how to fully integrate environmental and sustainable development issues into the basic mission of their institutions.

Although PCIEP consortium programs are not finalized, PCIEP will probably concentrate initially on some of the most pressing contemporary environmental problems such as:

  1. Greening curriculum and operation at PCIEP institutions of higher learning
  2. Climate change
  3. Sustainable energy use
  4. Sustainable development, including integration of environmental, social, and economic issues into land use decision-making
  5. Operationalizing ecosystem and watershed management approaches to environmental protection programs
  6. Examining the effects of toxic substances on ecological systems and human health
  7. Protecting biological diversity at all species levels
  8. Developing and/or expanding pollution prevention programs
  9. Developing additional environmental information

Initial goals of the Consortium include:

  1. To describe the courses and environmental interests of participating colleges and universities.
  2. To describe major cutting-edge policy issues and needs of DEP and DCNR.
  3. To begin a dialogue about how PCIEP governmental decision-makers and participating colleges and universities might productively cooperate around specific issues such as those listed above. This dialogue is the first step in developing Consortium programs that will facilitate more specific cooperation between various entities in the future.

The PCIEP website identifies all environmental protection and sustainable development courses, research interests, and special programs or institutions, of participating PCIEP colleges and universities. Also on the website is a statement by participating governmental agencies regarding what they believe are the most challenging environmental and sustainable development problems currently under consideration. This information acts as a basis for determining how governmental institutions and institutions of higher education might cooperate around specific problems.

The work completed on the website has assisted PCIEP in determining individuals working on these problems in various disciplines of our participating institutions. The breadth of these disciplines includes not only science, engineering, economics, and law-the disciplines often involved in environmental and sustainable development issues-but also the social sciences, education, ethics, and the humanities. PCIEP encourages people working on environmental issues from every disciplinary perspective to become involved in the practical aspects of our environmental problems. The Consortium believes that it has the strength to encourage and enhance greater interdisciplinary involvement between educational and governmental institutions in ways that are perhaps more beneficial than what either of these institutions has been able to accomplish individually in the past. For this reason, PCIEP seeks to increase governmental and academic cooperation and to enhance interdisciplinary contributions to pressing environmental and sustainable development problems at various levels within its institution.

On July 28, 2000, PCIEP adopted by-laws, elected its executive committee, and began the process of developing interdisciplinary programs focused on environmental and sustainable development issues. To assure an interdisciplinary focus in the work of PCIEP, the bylaws provide that all committees of the Consortium must, to the extent that it is possible, be comprised of members from different disciplines. This interdisciplinary philosophy is present in PCIEP in three main ways. First, the seven member PCIEP executive committee guiding the new Consortium includes people trained in biology, law, public policy, ecology, economics, engineering, environmental science, and botany. Second, the acting director of PCIEP has a diverse background that includes training in commerce, the engineering sciences, law, and philosophy. Third, PCIEP utilizes an interdisciplinary perspective when examining environmental and sustainable development problems considered in its programs.

In addition to Pennsylvania DEP and DCNR, participating members of PCIEP include:

Allegheny College
Bloomsburg University
Bucknell University
California University of Pennsylvania
Carnegie Mellon University
Cheney University of Pennsylvania
Clarion University of Pennsylvania
Delaware Valley College
Dickinson College
Duquesne School of Law
East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania
Gannon University
Gettysburg College
Harrisburg Area Community College
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Juniata College
Kutztown University of Pennsylvania
Lehigh University
Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania
Mansfield University of Pennsylvania
Millersville University of Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania State University
Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania
Sustainable Pittsburgh
Swarthmore College
Temple University
Temple University School of Law
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania School of Law
University of Pittsburgh
University of Pittsburgh School of Law
Villanova University
West Chester University of Pennsylvania
Widener University School of Law
Wilson College

Questions about the Consortium should be directed to Don Brown, PCIEP acting director, at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Additional information about PCIEP, see their website.



Copyright © 2000 Donald Brown.
Reprinted with permission.