National Science Foundation Funds New Project to Coordinate Research Across Disciplines and Countries

January 2022

(Washington, D.C.)—The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $300,000 to the Network on the Digital Economy and the Environment (nDEE)—an initiative of the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and the Yale School of the Environment—and the University of California Berkeley to support research to better understand the energy and environmental (E&E) impacts of digital technologies. The two-year grant, supported by NSF’s Directorate for Engineering and Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, is designed to encourage greater interdisciplinary collaboration with a focus on the indirect environmental effects of the digital economy impacts that go beyond the increases or reductions of energy use and emissions arising from digital devices and infrastructure.

Indirect environmental impacts that stem from digital technologies are myriad, complex, and not always obvious. Technological innovations can cause physical products to be replaced with digital ones. Digitally mediated behaviors that save time and money could induce energy-intensive activities and cause rebound effects, as can be seen when short-term rental platforms increases long distance travel. Larger structural transformations to society will also be felt, for instance, as artificial intelligence enables autonomous vehicle use.

Kasantha Moodley, head of ELI’s Innovation Lab and principal investigator for the grant, noted that, “Ensuring that our digital economy contributes to sustainability will require greater research efforts at the intersection of multiple and often-disparate disciplines along with increased scientific cooperation across national borders. This project aims to close disciplinary and knowledge gaps, increase the quality and quantity of research, and help grow a new field with a focus on digitalization and sustainability.”

This grant builds on over four years of funding from the Alfred P. Sloan and Internet Society Foundations and will support multiple virtual and face-to-face workshops to facilitate institutional and disciplinary collaborations, identify research priorities, improve scholarly output, and attract additional funding, from both government and philanthropic sources. To better coordinate work with European researchers and institutions, nDEE now has staff located in Berlin, Germany.

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