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Initiative: Focus resources on advancing centers of excellence:

The Marshall University Freshwater Institute

 Education, Research and Development for Informed Water Policy



Water is a resource that every person uses every day.  One recent investment flier calls water “the next oil”, and projects that “in the next 6 years the bottled water industry will grow to over $420 billion globally.” Yet potable water represents only one aspect of the resource.  The transportation industry on local rivers moves more than $45 billion worth of goods each year and represents an annual payroll of over $6.5 billion.  Management of this valuable resource requires informed public policy.  Informed public policy requires knowledge.  And knowledge requires research.  Marshall University is particularly well situated to conduct such research.  Marshall should be among the institutions that help shape public water policy in the 21st century. 

Marshall University is situated on the 9th largest, and 2nd most commercially traveled, river system in the US (Ohio River).  We are 41 river miles from the 8th most commercially traveled river in the US (Great Kanawha River), and within easy reach of the most important recreational rivers in the eastern US (New and Gauley Rivers).  West Virginia’s major rivers are fed by more than 30,000 miles of streams and tributaries that drain every kind of watershed from old growth forests to urban landscapes.  Marshall University is co-located with the offices of the Huntington District of the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Nick J. Rahall II Appalachian Transportation Institute.  This nexus of waterways, academic researchers and governmental agencies produces an unparalleled opportunity to establish a world-class institute for the study of freshwater and the biological, physical, chemical and geological processes that impact its availability.

The Project

We propose to create the Marshall University Freshwater Institute (MU-FWI) dedicated to research and education in watershed resource science.  The primary goal of the MU-FWI is to create and enable an interdisciplinary community of scholars to provide students and governmental environmental policy makers a balanced, fully integrated and comprehensive understanding of water resource issues.  It is our contention that this level of collaborative scholarship is absent in most universities and that such fragmented research and education leads to disjointed data interpretation and faulty public policy.  This more holistic approach will lead to better decisions by tomorrow’s leaders and longer lasting protections of critical natural resources.  The objectives are: 1) the creation of a nationally competitive research center, 2) the establishment of a continuum of educational programs from grade school through doctoral levels, and 3) the establishment of an Ohio River Observatory data-banking and data-mining facility linking the MU-FWI with other research centers on the Ohio River.  

Marshall University will create MU-FWI by focusing its talents in existing programs and strengthening this focus through strategic hires of new researchers.  Marshall’s existing strengths include: environmental scientists in the College of Science (COS); environmental engineers in the College of Information Technology and Engineering (CITE); microbiologists in the Forensic Science Program (FS) and School of Medicine (SOM), and maritime transportation specialists in the Rahall Transportation Institute (RTI).  The MU-FWI will not replace or alter the basic mission of any of these separate entities, but it will serve to organize faculty with complementary experience and interests into interdisciplinary research and educational teams.  The establishment of the MU-FWI will lead to new research and educational opportunities for West Virginia and new collaborative opportunities for the University. 

To complement the Marshall core of researchers we propose to hire a nationally recognized director and key research and support personnel.  To do this, an Associate Director position will be established and supported by existing faculty.  The Associate Director will administer the programs outlined herein until the director is hired, and then work with the director to establish research and education programs, hire key personnel, and secure external funding.  The new director must have demonstrable managerial skills, exceptional scientific acumen, and a history of success in competing for external funding.  New faculty will be selected based on their capacity to meet critical needs of the MU-FWI. 

We estimate that the start-up costs for MU-FWI to be approximately $2.2 million.  These funds will provide for salaries and start-up costs, planning grants, equipment, administrative support, and outreach programs.  A significant portion of this budget will be dedicated to attracting a highly qualified director. 

1.   Research Center:  While the nature of the research conducted within MU-FWI will depend, in part, on the research specialties of the new hires, multi-disciplinary and competitive research projects will be emphasized.  Areas where research capability or collaborations already exist include: malacology, ichthyology, nutrient dynamics, hydrology, bioindicators of water quality, microbial source-tracking, and development of innovative web-based tools for data storage and retrieval.

The following are just a few examples of major federal funding that would be applicable to MU-FWI research.  Program descriptions are those provided by the funding agencies. 

  1. National Science Foundation - Biocomplexity in the Environment (BE) is one of the National Science Foundation's Priority Areas. The BE program is a multi-year investment designed to promote new approaches to investigating the interactivity of biota and the environment.  The key connector of BE activities is complexity - the idea that research on the individual components of environmental systems provides only limited information about the behavior of the systems themselves.  By placing biocomplexity studies in an environmental context, this competition emphasizes research with the following characteristics: (a) a high degree of interdisciplinarity; (b) a focus on complex environmental systems that includes non-human biota and humans; and (c) a focus on systems with high potential for exhibiting non-linear behavior.  To be competitive for support, teams of investigators drawn from natural and human sciences must examine the dynamics of appropriate natural and human systems as well as the interactions that link those two systems.  The interdisciplinary teams undertaking these projects must have appropriate expertise from relevant natural sciences (biological sciences, geosciences, physical sciences) and relevant human sciences (social sciences, engineering, behavioral and medical sciences) to effectively examine appropriate natural and human systems and their interactions.  Teams should have appropriate expertise from the mathematical sciences to undertake complex quantitative analyses of large data sets.  They should have expertise in education and pedagogy to formulate, conduct, and analyze educational activities associated with the research.  Awards can reach $2 million over three years.
  1. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - Collaborative Science and Technology Network for Sustainability (CNS).  EPA launched the CNS program in 2004. CNS awards about 10 grants to universities, states, cities, and non-profits for regional projects that use science to address the long term sustainability of resources, including water, land, energy, materials, and ecosystems.  Proposals should address the long-term sustainability (in terms of quality, availability, and viability) of one or more resources, including water, atmosphere, land, energy, materials, and ecology. These resources should be considered in the context of a system, including, but not limited to: an ecosystem or watershed; an industrial network or supply chain; or the urban built environment. Proposals should consider economic and social dimensions, as well as environmental ones. Problems or opportunities addressed should be regional in scale. For example, a project could develop approaches for economically managing water quality and quantity in a watershed encompassing several states or municipalities; tools for reducing environmental burden through effective flow of materials and energy in a supply chain; or models to support transportation systems planning across a multi-jurisdiction metropolitan area that will result in economical improvements in air and water quality.  Awards up to $100,000/year for three years.
  1. National Science Foundation – Cyberinfrastructure for Environmental Observatories.  Spatially extensive observing systems for environmental research, together with the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of research on the dynamics of complex environmental systems, create the need for a sophisticated information infrastructure to support these observing systems and to facilitate the integrated use of data from them. There are a number of questions about how to best construct such a cyberinfrastructure. To help answer these questions and to promote planning for Cyberinfrastructure for Environmental Observatories (CEO), this solicitation requests proposals for the development of practical environmental cyberinfrastructure prototypes along with a demonstration of their capability to answer significant environmental research questions. Proposals should be for projects that pursue an end-to-end approach to an information infrastructure prototype. Proposals should identify the types of data involved and the ways in which users might wish to use such data. The proposed projects should include the careful exploration of use cases followed by deployment of a prototype that implements these use cases.

2.  Educational Development.  A key element of this plan is to leverage MU-FWI funding for the purpose of establishing a continuum of unique educational experiences.  We will begin with the creation of K-12 outreach programs that stimulate lifelong interests in freshwater resources.  We will partner with RiverTrek, a non profit (501c3) organization that owns and operates the Chattanooga Star, an authentic replica of a side-wheel paddleboat.  The Star is fully certified for operation with up to 145 passengers, and will be used as a floating classroom.  MU-FWI faculty and Captains Mike and Pete Hosemann of the Star will conduct a series of educational field trips on the Ohio River.  We will specifically target schools that do not have the resources for such excursions. (Last year, several public schools canceled similar trips because they had no money to pay for bus transportation.)  In addition, MU-FWI faculty will help K-12 teachers develop curricula in watershed resource management. 

Undergraduate and graduate training will begin by exposing students to courses that connect their lives with the quality of the aquatic systems that surround them.  We propose that student learning in math and science will be enhanced by exposing them to the relationship of these disciplines to the assessment of water quality and the remediation of associated environmental problems.  The fiscal facilities, including boats and equipment, as well as technical expertise of the faculty, will expose students to experiences that increase their interest in the sciences and well as basic competencies in the sciences, engineering and business.  Ultimately, some will chose to enter research and graduate training, while others will graduate with a comprehensive view of the value and complexities of freshwater resources.  

The MU-FWI will create certificate, undergraduate and graduate programs in watershed sciences.  Watersheds form the most appropriate functional landscape units that can be used to determine the dynamic interactions between land and water use activities and water resources. Land and water use activities such as forestry, mining, agriculture, industry, transportation, urbanization, fisheries and recreation all impact water resources to various degrees. Interactions between natural and human processes can best be assessed in a watershed context because the water quantity and quality at the outlet of a watershed provides an excellent indication of how well we manage the resources in it, and what the cumulative impacts are of all these activities. Water resource problems are reaching global proportions and given the complexity of all the processes that affect the hydrological cycle there is a need for a holistic treatment of this topic.  There are very few University degree programs in Water Resource Management and few graduates have the opportunity to be exposed to the interdisciplinary nature and methods of watershed management.  For these reasons, the MU-FWI will develop both a Certificate program in Watershed Resource Science Program as well as interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate programs.   The Certificate Program will provide professionals with the conceptual and technical skills to formulate responses to water resource issues. The interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate programs will be flexible and, to a large extent, tailored to the educational goals of the student.  The associated research activities will address a range of topics related to environmental assessment, water resource management, hydrology, environmental engineering, science and policy, and environmental management systems.

MU-FWI will serve the national interest.  West Virginia rivers and streams flow into the Ohio and Potomac Rivers and thus have significant impact on downstream populations and habitats.  For example, nearly 10% of the U.S. population lives within the Ohio River basin, and more than 3 million people in six states use the Ohio River as a source of drinking water.  Maintenance of water quality must be achieved in balance with the commercial value of major rivers.  The Ohio River is the second most commercially traveled river in the United States, and the Great Kanawha River ranks eighth in the same category.  Transportation activities represent billions of dollars each year, and directly impact the production of energy in the region, much of which is consumed outside of West Virginia. There are 20 dams and 49 power generating facilities on the Ohio River.  These power plants have a combined capacity in excess of six percent of the total US generating capacity.  The research and educational activities of the MU-FWI will emphasize a “holistic” understanding of this national resource.

MU-FWI will create new jobs in West Virginia.   University research is playing an ever increasing role in regional economic development in the new knowledge-based economy.  Basic discoveries from research universities bring new technologies and services that both strengthen existing industries and grow new ones.  A 2003 AUTM survey reported that US universities executed 4,388 licenses and “spun out” 374 new companies that year.  Almost 13% of these licenses went to new start-up companies and the remainder went to existing businesses.  License income to these schools that year exceeded $1.4 billion. Marshall University just spun out one small biotech business in Huntington and about to complete a second license agreement with a Huntington firm.  With the acquisition of new research facilities and an established technology transfer program (IDEA), the basic rate limiting step in Marshall’s economy development capabilities is the number of nationally competitive researchers.    

One does not have to go out of state to witness the role of a research university in regional economic development.  WVU has contributed to the growth of the I-79 High Tech Corridor.  While Huntington’s and Charleston’s populations are relatively stable, Morgantown’s is growing. Continued investment in the research capacity of Marshall University will stimulate similar high tech economic growth of the Advantage Valley corridor.  For economic reasons alone, West Virginia needs a second research university. 

The MU-FWI will bring jobs to Marshall and its community.  At Marshall, we estimate that increased research grant activity will produce between 25 and 30 new jobs.  The majority will be in the area of technical research support.  They include such things as administrative assistants (>$25K/year), post doctoral fellows and research technicians ($30K to $40K per year), undergraduate and graduate students (from $ 4,800/year for part-time work study students to $22K/year for doctoral students).  Most of this additional staffing will be provided by research grants, but some will be supported by the institution.  As important as these university jobs is the role that enhanced research will play in regional business development.  Most new biotechnology businesses in the U.S. either originate from research universities or are attracted to the university by its resident intellectual and technical resources.  The MU-FWI will enhance regional economic development through biotechnology.  One water-related spin-off business, already under development at Marshall, is estimated to create 13 new, high paying jobs within five years.  The current business plan for this new company calls for a Ph.D. level technical director at $90,000/year, a business manager at $70,000/year, two DNA analysts at $30,000/year each and a secretary at $30,000/year.  According to the business plan, the company would add two more DNA analysts each year for the next four years.   

This particular company grew out of research conducted at the Forensic Science Center at Marshall.  It will utilize DNA testing to identify the source of bacterial contamination of rivers and streams.  In West Virginia, the 2004 Water Quality Report revealed that spot testing documented over 1,600 miles of rivers and streams are contaminated with fecal bacteria. Probabilistic statistics suggest that almost 9,000 miles of WV waterways are comparably contaminated.  Until recently, West Virginia (and most other states) had no way to identify the source of this contamination.  Is it human or non-human?  This new business can now do so.  This is important information because there is no reason for a community to invest in an expensive upgrade of its sewage treatment plant if the source is domestic animals or wildlife.  The practical value of such technology was revealed when MU investigators received a call from a Pennsylvania woman whose property was devalued because of bacterial contamination of the ground water. She wanted to know if we could tell her whether it came from a human or non-human source.  We are predicting that once more people learn about this, there will be a huge demand for “bacterial source tracking”.  WV Department of Environmental Protection Division of Water Quality has been advised on these latest developments in bacterial source tracking and has provided valuable guidance.  The WV database has grown into a powerful analytical tool, and MU investigators are working with two other states to establish comparable testing programs.

A second environmental business opportunity has just surfaced.  It originated from research conducted in Marshall’s College of Science.  This company would provide basic water quality measures currently contracted from the State and, eventually add bioremediation of chlorinated compounds to its business portfolio.  While a business plan has not yet been formulated, initial personnel projections include a technical director at $ 60,000/year, a business manager at $ 55,000/year, an analyst at $ 30,000/year, and a secretary at about $ 26,000/year. 

Finally, a 2002 economic impact study performed by our Center for Business and Economic Research estimated that Marshall had the potential to create $83 million in revenue and 110 high paying jobs in the next 20 years.  Because there is a direct correlation between university inventions and regional economy growth, the creation of MU-FWI should allow us to exceed these earlier estimates. 

MU-FWI will build on past initiatives.  The University has determined that a major part of its future (and that of southern West Virginia) is best served by focusing on three overlapping research areas:  medical, forensic, and environmental.  Medical and forensic research areas are growing due to significant federal and private investments.  The conceptual and physical cornerstone is the Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center where biomedical, forensic and basic scientists will work together.  MU-FWI is the next step, because it places a “third leg” on our science stool.  Unlike the other two legs, the environmental group is not well coordinated.  Consequently, the core of resident expertise is largely disconnected – each studying parts of a much larger whole.  While individual investigators do capture smaller grants and contracts, they cannot approach the large multi-disciplinary funding opportunities.  MU-FWI will connect biomedical, forensic, and environmental researchers in a way that they can collectively approach issues of watershed resource management.  The complexity of this resource will include elements of public health, homeland security, transportation, and clean energy production.  

The MU-FWI parallels and complements another strategic initiative of the University.  The proposed Center for the Study of Genomic-Environmental Interactions (CSGEI) is designed to uncover the causative relationship between genetic and environmental factors in complex human diseases.  Both the MU-FWI and the CSGEI will be employing similar technologies (genomics) and expertise (mathematics, database managers, toxicologists, etc.) and connect whenever variations in water quality (microbial contamination) affect population genetics.     

MU-FWI does not duplicate efforts elsewhere, but offers a bigger picture.  MU officials have spent the last two years planning for an Ohio River Observatory (ORO).  This is a Marshall initiative that would facilitate cooperative research on projects too large for a single institution.  The initiative involves faculty at Carnegie Mellon, the University of Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky University, Thomas More College, Hanover College, University of Louisville, and Murray State University.   It has also received favorable comment from federal agencies (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Huntington District, the U.S. EPA, and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, ORSANCO), state agencies (WV DEP and WV EPSCoR), and the WV American Water Company.  The MU-FWI will be an integral part of this national consortium.  In fact, without the MU-FWI and the leadership it will provide, it is doubtful that ORO can become a reality.

Sustainability.  The primary costs associated with this proposal are those needed to acquire four nationally competitive scientists – the director, an environmental informaticist, an environmental engineer, and a forensic microbiologist. Assuming an average level of funding of $200,000/yr/investigator, the four new scientists alone would bring Marshall $800,000 in new research funding per year. This level of funding would generate between $200,000/yr and $300,000/yr in finance and administrative revenue for the University, and the 50% portion returned the MU-FWI would be more than sufficient to cover operational costs.  This should be considered a conservative estimate of annual funding, because the new equipment and integration of the new hires with existing faculty will generate many opportunities for larger team projects.  The NSF, for example, has a Biocomplexity in the Environment Program tailor made for the MU-FWI.  This one program yields $2 million over a three year period.

What are the social benefits of the MU-FWI?   In addition to the outreach K-12 educational mission listed earlier, the MU-FWI will submit a major grant to the NSF’s Informal Science Education (ISE) Program.  The University is working with members of the Huntington community to create a River Museum.  The ISE Program seeks to develop informal learning experiences to increase interest, engagement, and understanding of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Informal learning refers to activities that are not primarily for school use, home schooling or part of an ongoing school curriculum, or require mandatory participation in a credited school activity.   One of the principal goals is creating learning environments (science museums) that engage underserved audiences in culturally-responsive ways that significantly increase the numbers impacted by informal science learning.  Awards range from $100,000 to $3 million for up to five years of program support.  MU-FWI faculty will write this grant and work with local leaders to find the funds to renovate downtown space to house the museum.    

What other local, state or businesses support the initiative?  As previously mentioned, this project and the ORO have the enthusiastic support of the Huntington District of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, the West Virginia State Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), the West Virginia American Water Corporation, and the Ohio River Basin Consortium for Research and Education.  Research collaborations have been established with the University of Ohio (Athens, OH), Northern Kentucky University (Highland Heights, KY), Thomas More College (Highland Heights, KY), and the University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH).  We are currently seeking research agreements with the University of Louisville and Murray State University.