New UC Berkeley Center Will Apply Data Science to Solving Environmental Challenges

March 23, 2022
By: Tiffany Lohwater and Julie Gipple
Two students look at a laptop while standing outside in a wooded area
UC Berkeley PhD candidates Jessie Moravek and Kendall Calhoun combine sensor arrays and data science to study the impacts of fire and drought on California’s biodiversity. (Photo by Phoebe Parker-Shames)

A new research center at the University of California, Berkeley, funded by alumni Eric and Wendy Schmidt, will tackle major environmental challenges including climate change and biodiversity loss by combining data science and environmental science. The Eric and Wendy Schmidt Center for Data Science and Environment will make its novel solutions publicly available to all and make sure they are practical and can be replicated and scaled for society’s benefit.

The rapid increase in new environmental data, computational methods and tools that connect people to data and each other provides the opportunity to vastly increase the role of data science in environmental problem-solving — from developing models that predict wildfires to building tools that optimize carbon capture methods.  

The new center will be funded by a $12.6 million, five-year commitment from the Schmidts. Developed through a partnership between UC Berkeley’s Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at Rausser College of Natural Resources, the center will enhance ongoing research and educational collaboration. 

“Berkeley has long been at the forefront of research in the areas of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental justice, and the tools of data science are essential as we work to address the impacts of these and other environmental challenges,” said David Ackerly, dean of the Rausser College of Natural Resources. “This collaboration will create meaningful connections for research that can lead to important solutions.”

Openness and inclusivity are at the heart of the new center, where there will be an intentional combination of computing and environmental science with open science principles. Open science is a movement that seeks to make scientific research and its dissemination accessible to all levels of society and develops knowledge through collaborative networks. 

“From carbon concentrations in the highest reaches of our atmosphere to microplastics in the deepest ocean, our natural environment is being impacted everywhere we look, but environmental solutions remain rare, or out of reach where they’re needed most,” said Wendy Schmidt, who graduated in 1981 from UC Berkeley’s Master of Journalism program and is president and co-founder of The Schmidt Family Foundation and co-founder of Schmidt Ocean Institute and Schmidt Futures. “The Schmidt Center will help all of us, and particularly communities around the world on the front lines of environmental impacts, work together to harness the power of data to encourage innovation and drive action.”  

Jennifer Chayes, associate provost of the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society and dean of the School of Information, said the new center “will allow UC Berkeley to bring cutting-edge computing and data science to the most urgent issue of our time: climate change and the effects on our environment.” 

The co-leaders of the Schmidt Center for Data Science and Environment are Fernando Pérez, associate professor of statistics at UC Berkeley and faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Douglas McCauley, associate adjunct professor of environmental science, policy, and management at UC Berkeley and associate professor of ecology, evolution, and marine biology at UC Santa Barbara. The center will be further advised by faculty from departments across the campus spanning a diverse range of expertise, including Sandrine Dudoit, Department of Statistics; Justin Brashares, Maggi Kelly, Carl Boettiger, and Paolo D’odorico, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management; Charuleka Varadharajan, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Berkeley Institute for Data Science; and Joseph Gonzalez, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The center will recruit postdoctoral scholars and research engineers with expertise in environmental science, applied data science and software engineering to work closely with data and environmental scientists on projects. The center also will partner with communities and a variety of other stakeholders whose knowledge and expertise can affect how the research will impact them and be used locally. 

“Climate science’s biggest problem used to be a lack of data. Now, we have a lot of data and not enough understanding,” said Eric Schmidt, who received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer sciences from UC Berkeley in 1982 and is co-founder of The Schmidt Family Foundation, Schmidt Ocean Institute and Schmidt Futures. “Wendy and I are eager to support the talented community of scientists — across disciplines, empowered with AI and machine learning solutions, at Berkeley and beyond — as they work to leverage the power of data science to develop environmental solutions.” 

Experts in the fields of computing, data science, environmental science and conservation will meet within the next year to advise on the center’s first case study projects. Potential focus areas may include big data collection and synthesis, predicting and forecasting environmental outcomes, and environmental management and decision support tools, which help analysts and others make better decisions, and faster.