$6 million grant to fund center for robust decision–making on climate and energy policy

The Computation Institute at the University of Chicago is leading a new multi–institutional, interdisciplinary center to build tools to help governments, the private sector and individuals make better–informed decisions relating to both climate and energy policies and the long–term consequences of climate change.

The effort will bring together collaborators at nine institutions under the auspices of a new Center for Robust Decision Making on Climate and Energy Policy, supported by a five–year, $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation as part of the Decision–Making Under Uncertainty program. The Center will consist of experts in economics, physical sciences, energy technologies, law, computational mathematics, statistics and computer science. The group will undertake a series of tightly connected research programs aimed at improving the computational models needed to evaluate energy and climate policies and guide decisions based on outcomes.

“The Center takes advantage of the University’s disciplinary strengths in economics, in geophysics and in sophisticated simulations to address complex problems where the perspectives of many fields must be brought to bear,” said Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in Physics. “We look forward to new insights and, perhaps more importantly, to new models for robust and testable computational approaches.”

The Center is intended to fill a pressing research need. While climate models have been under intensive development for half a century, the study of possible human responses to climate change is in its relative infancy. While large collaborative teams build climate models and run them on supercomputers, individuals or small academic groups build the economic models used to evaluate responses to climate change and often run them on personal computers. The Center’s research will contribute to innovation in four main areas: the fidelity of computer simulations used to forecast the impact of policies on future economic and climatic conditions; understanding of sensitivities and uncertainties in parameters, processes and impacts in the simulations; identifying the best decisions in the face of uncertainty; and the computational methods required to achieve these goals.

The Center will organize much of its research around CIM–EARTH (Community Integrated Model of Economic and Resource Trajectories for Humankind), a new modeling framework that enables more powerful and transparent simulation of the interactions of climatic and other physical processes with human activities, including economic systems, agricultural markets, land use changes and population trends. The goal of the Center’s research, and CIM–EARTH, is to provide useful information to policymakers, who must make decisions that will carry trillions of dollars worth of impact, whether as mitigation costs, adaptation costs or damage from climate change.

The Center will engage closely with decision makers at a range of organizations including government, business and not–for profits to ensure that an appropriate range of policy choices are realistically represented. In addition, the Center will engage graduate, undergraduate and high school students in learning about what it means to pose, explore and ultimately answer challenging questions concerning decision–making under uncertainty in the context of climate change.

A unique feature of CIM–EARTH will be the open science philosophy. All source code will be open, enabling independent scholars and policymakers to review its assumptions and provide feedback for enhancements. All models, data and tools developed by the Center will be available to the community, both as standalone components and as an integrated modeling framework. Furthermore, CIM–EARTH will include user–friendly interfaces that will allow others to investigate their own variants of CIM–EARTH with no major coding effort.

Ian Foster, one of the world’s foremost researchers in distributed, parallel and data–intensive computing technologies, will lead the center. Foster is the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor in Computer Science, a Distinguished Fellow at Argonne National Laboratory and Director of the Computation Institute, a joint effort of University of Chicago and Argonne.

“There is no more important problem facing humanity today than meeting rapidly expanding energy needs without damaging the environment,” noted Foster. “Understanding sustainable development trajectories requires the integrated study of economics, geophysics and their interactions. We believe that our uniquely qualified team can deliver new perspectives on these important issues.”

In addition to improving the fidelity of models, the Center seeks to distinguish itself by advancing research related to the characterization of uncertainty, with the goal of ultimately developing new methods for robust decision–making. According to one of the principal investigators, Lars Hansen, the David Rockefeller Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, Statistics and the College, “Uncertainty is a critical component to credible economic models that explore implications for climate change. The unraveling of uncertainty about climate impacts and economic consequences should be an important component in modeling private sector responses and in prospective policy design,” said Hansen, who is a leading expert in robustness. “A challenge for this research center is to provide formal and tractable modeling frameworks that incorporate decision–making under uncertainty in meaningful ways.”

The other principal investigators are also leading researchers in their fields: Kenneth L. Judd, Paul H. Bauer Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution; Elisabeth Moyer, Assistant Professor in Geophysical Sciences; and Todd Munson, Senior Fellow, Computation Institute and Researcher at Argonne National Laboratory.

The other senior participants are, from the University of Chicago: Samuel Kortum, Professor in Economics; Ray Pierrehumbert, the Louis Block Professor in Geophysical Sciences; Michael Stein, the Ralph and Mary Otis Isham Professor in Statistics; and David Weisbach, the Walter J. Blum Professor in Law and Director of the Program in Law and Economics; from Argonne National Laboratory, Rob Jacob, Scientist in the Mathematics and Computer Science Division, and Rao Kotamarthi, Scientist in the Environmental Sciences Division; Alan Sanstad, Senior Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Don Fullerton, Gutgsell Professor of Finance at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign; William Brock, Professor of Economics at the University of Wisconsin; Thomas Hertel, University Professor of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University; Leonard Smith, Professor of Statistics at the London School of Economics; Nirupama Rao, Professor of Economics, New York University; and Robin Hankin and Rachel Warren, researchers at the United Kingdom’s Tyndall Centre.

Preliminary work on the Center was enabled by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Computation Institute was established in 2000 as a joint initiative between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory to advance science through innovative computational approaches. Scholarship in the sciences, arts and medicine depends increasingly on collection and analysis of large quantities of data and detailed numerical simulations of complex phenomena. Progress is gated by researchers’ abilities to construct complex software systems, to harness large–scale computing and to federate distributed resources. The CI is both an intellectual nexus and resource center for those building and applying such computational platforms for science. As an intellectual nexus, it brings together researchers from different disciplines with common interests in advancing state–of–the–art computing and its applications. As a resource center, it provides expert assistance to scholars whose work requires the most advanced computational methods.