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Collins helps advance ASU science ties with China

September 26, 2007

The words “complexity” and “sustainability” haven’t commonly been associated with one of the fastest-growing economies in the world – China, to be exact – but that is changing.

About 1,400 environmental scientists and policy-makers from 70 countries gathered at the EcoSummit 2007 in Beijing earlier this year to discuss such issues and the challenges of global warming and ecosystem degradation.

Taking part in the discussion was James Collins, the Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and Environment of ASU’s School of Life Sciences, and assistant director for the biological sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Collins delivered the opening plenary lecture “Ecology in the 21st Century: Where Do We Go From Here?”

Looking ahead is exactly why this veritable “Who’s Who” of environmental science was staged in China.

The idea of the EcoSummit – just the third since 1996, and the first to be held in Asia – is to “encourage integration of the natural and social sciences with the policy- and decision-making community, develop deeper understandings of complex ecological issues.”

EcoSummit 2007 reflected the belief that international collaboration is fundamental to developing sustainable solutions to this century’s ecological global challenges. Challenges also included “human well-being in the context of the United Nations’ ‘Millennium Development Goals.’ ”

Understanding the complex relationships between humans, plants, insects, microbes and soils is at the heart of one such collaborative research effort between U.S. and Chinese scientists in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

Collins visited the the Inner Mongolia Grassland Ecosystem Research Station (IMGERS), which is the study site of ASU ecologists Jingle Wu and James Elser, professors in the School of Life Sciences. Their work there, Elser says, is an outgrowth of another NSF-funded scientific exchange program – one he led organized around “Ecological Complexity and Ecosystem Services,” with Zhibin Zhang, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Zoology, that brought more than a dozen U.S. scientists to China, including Wu, and Chinese scientists to ASU in 2004.

The Ecosystem Research Station, established in 1979, is considered the most influential long-term ecological research site in China, Wu says. This ASU-China collaborative is supported by $1.2 million in funds from the NSF and an additional $2.3 million contributed by the Chinese National Science Foundation (NSFC). Its aim is to develop understanding of and improve management practices in this semi-arid ecosystem, one of the largest natural grasslands in the world.

In addition, this research effort is expected to provide significant educational, cultural and research experiences for U.S. and Chinese students, and will help establish “a long-term scientific platform in the Inner Mongolia Grassland for U.S.-China collaborations on ecological research, particularly in biocomplexity, and sustainability science for years to come.”

“Collins’ visit to the Inner Mongolia Grassland Ecosystem Research Station, was indicative of NSF’s global vision for scientific exploration and genuine efforts to promote international collaborations,” says Wu, who also is a member of the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU and recipient of the 2006 American Association for the Advancement of Science International Science Award for his leadership in sustainability science, in addition to “his careerlong involvement with landscape ecological research in China.”

Wu, an adviser to the President’s Office on China Affairs at ASU, says that the impact of Collins’ visit to China was “substantial, creating a wave of positive reactions” from scientists and leaders from Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who administers the Ecosystem Research Station, and other institutions in Beijing, including the Chinese National Science Foundation.