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Sino Symposium

UVM event brings U.S. researchers together with their Chinese counterparts to create new collaborations

By Jon Reidel Article published October 26, 2005

China symposium
Chinese scientists and UVM faculty forged some specific collaborative projects at a recent symposium on ecological complexity and ecosystem services. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

With most of the major events of the second day of the joint Sino-USA symposium on Ecological Complexity and Ecosystem Services at UVM out of the way, it was time for a less formal brainstorming session for the dozen or so scientists from China and their American peers.

The informal dialogue at Billings, which continued over dinner at A Single Pebble, was exactly the kind of conversation university organizers of the Oct. 21-22 event, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Chinese Academy of Science in partnership with the university, were hoping would occur. American scientists and members of the Chinese delegation, they hoped, would forge long-term collaborations and exchange innovative ideas pertaining to ecological complexity and ecosystem services that would lead to concrete initiatives from which both countries would benefit.

“This is a worldwide issue,” says ZhenLiang Yu, one of the Chinese scientists and director of the Ecology and Forestry division in the Department of Life Science at the National Natural Science Foundation of China. “This interaction is very important because it puts all these scientists together with different backgrounds to do research. We can learn from each other. Both countries benefit from this type of collaboration.”

The Burlington symposium, established in response to a similar trip to China in 2004 by a U.S. delegation that included Matthew Wilson, assistant professor in the School of Business Administration and the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, and Austin Troy, assistant professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, attracted more than 100 researchers from universities across the country. Wilson and Troy, who served as co-principal investigators and session chairs, planted the seeds for the return visit to UVM while on the China trip.

Scientists presented on topics related to myriad of issues stemming from the increasing intersection of natural ecosystems and human enterprise as economies become more inter-connected due to economic globalization. These issues are particularly prevalent in China, where a massive population is still adjusting to the country’s transition to a market-based economy. The symposium included an interactive session with President Daniel Mark Fogel prior to touring the ECHO Center; a ride on Melosira, UVM’s research vessel; and built-in time to meet with university professors in their labs.

“During these trips you build a basic baseline of trust,” says Wilson. “We have some big cultural divides; we’re from different worlds really. By visiting each other’s homes and meeting each other’s families, it makes it easier to create a network and develop some specific research projects. Certainly some very specific products will come out of this.”

What’s next?
One of the outcomes of the symposium is a formal plan by Wilson and others in the U.S. delegation to apply for a Research Coordination Network grant from the National Science Foundation to support future collaborations and research endeavors. The Chinese delegates under the direction of Professor Xie Gaodi of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, intend to apply for a similar grant from Chinese institutions with the joint funding to be used to create a consortium that would act as an umbrella under which specific projects would be housed. Penny Firth, deputy director of NSF’s division of environmental biology, was on hand for those discussions at Billings and encouraged the grant proposal.

Wilson says both delegations agreed to develop research collaborations focusing on ecosystem services in protected areas in China; watershed planning in both countries; and on the greening of Beijing in preparation of the 2008 Olympics. Faculty from the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and other departments will be involved in many of the new initiatives, he says.

The symposium comes shortly after a recent trip to China by Fogel and other top UVM officials to explore collaborations in environmental education and research with Tsinghua University and Beijing University.

“We are very interested in forging partnerships with those institutions,” he says, adding that he recently sent letters of intent to both universities with specific offers to fund partnerships focused on teaching, research, and service in the environmental sciences, engineering and other disciplines. “We are looking to formalize these partnerships on an institutional level.”

Don DeHayes, dean of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, who traveled with Fogel to China along with other faculty, says the trip and the symposium are examples of a larger effort by the university to forge new partnerships with research institutions in China.

“It’s not just happenstance that we took a trip there,” says DeHayes. “We’ve had faculty members traveling there and forging partnerships for a number of years now. We’ve actually had our toe in this for a while. I think we’re now starting to formalize some of the ideas that we’ve had in the hopper. Resources are being dedicated to this effort. I don’t have any doubt that President Fogel is serious about this.”