The largest gift ever by an individual to Cornell University will go to support programs in sustainability research, the university is to announce today. David R. Atkinson and his wife, Patricia Atkinson, have given $80-million to Cornell’s three-year-old Center for a Sustainable Future, which is being renamed for Mr. Atkinson. The center, which had operated on a year-by-year basis, will now be a permanent entity at Cornell.
Mr. Atkinson, who made his wealth as a partner in a Philadelphia investment firm, said in a statement that the center would be a source of “unbiased information” and “a catalyst” for partnerships among businesses, nonprofit organizations, and government in research on sustainability.
The center’s director, Frank DiSalvo, who is a professor of chemistry at Cornell, said in an interview that the center would continue to work on setting up “intellectual collisions” between researchers from different fields, in the hope that they will come up with innovations in energy generation, water, and agriculture, among other areas. More than 200 faculty members are fellows associated with the center.
“My view of universities in the last century is that we focused on developing really strong disciplines, and that much of the focus has been disciplinary,” Mr. DiSalvo said. “The problems of this century are going to require that we cut across disciplines to bring together teams with a variety of expertise to address these problems.”
Researchers need to look at the world in terms of interconnected systems, he said. “We have spent much of the last century trying to intervene here and there, trying to make surgical strikes in energy or environment or somewhere, and most of the time we end up with unintended consequences because we’re not looking at the whole interacting system.”
The center’s work may also have some tangible benefits for operations at Cornell, which has signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and has worked on new ways to power its campus.
Meeting the commitment is “going to require interactions with research and development,” Mr. DiSalvo said. Because Cornell has 40 square miles of land, those researchers have lots of room to experiment with deep geothermal projects, biofuels, carbon sequestration, waste composting, and other projects.