Traditionally, higher education and research have encouraged specialization in increasingly narrow fields. Although this reductionist approach has resulted in many important advances, it also has a significant downside, as it results in a “silo effect” where experts in one discipline fail to see the implications of their activities on other disciplines and on society as a whole. Since most disciplines take the environment for granted, the side effects of their activities on the environment are often ignored or detected later as “unexpected surprises.” Ecological deterioration and unsustainability of many human activities are some of the undesirable outcomes of such reductionist or single-disciplinary thinking. Therefore, addressing the challenge of achieving sustainable development that we face today requires a paradigm shift in research and education such that reductionist and single-disciplinary thinking is supplemented by multidisciplinary knowledge and holistic methods.
The research and education programs at TERI SAS are at the leading edge of this shift that is taking place across the world. Our programs cut across disciplinary boundaries and integrate a holistic view with more traditional fields, and are a step toward overcoming the failure of traditional approaches to meet the challenges of sustainability. Our research activities belong to the following broad themes.
Resource Use and Management
All human activities rely on the availability of natural resources such as fuels, minerals, biomass, air, water and land. Sustainability requires their prudent management and use. Our research is developing new methods for enhancing the efficiency of energy and water use in systems such as industry, buildings, and urban and rural areas. We are also developing novel technologies for extracting useful energy from sunlight, biomass and waste, and assessing their broader socio-economic implications. This includes passive and photovoltVaic solar technologies, biomass gasification, and the design of smart electrical grids that can work with conventional and renewable sources of electricity.
For water resources, we are working to maximize their reuse and recovery, via our expertise in areas such as hydrology, water conservation techniques, integrated watershed management, and mathematical modeling. Our own campus is the preferred site for pilot application of many of these techniques. We also study the economic and ecological implications of water scarcity and use holistic methods to guide the development of technological alternatives.
Despite the crucial role played by nature in supporting all human activities most approaches, including those meant to enhance sustainability ignore their role. Better understanding of the interaction between human and natural systems is essential for formulating and implementing sustainable strategies. Our research is quantifying the availability of ecosystem goods and services at various geographical locations via advances in geoinformatics. These methods are also being used to understand the effect of environmental changes such as those due to forest fires, land use and land use change, and urbanization on economic growth and human well-being, including specific aspects such as poverty and health.
Understanding and monitoring the complex relationship between human activities on air and water quality and materials use is another active area of research. This includes efforts for understanding the flow of carbonaceous aerosols in the atmosphere, their chemical transformation, and their role in the changing chemistry of the atmosphere, and understanding the interaction between urban development, land use changes, water use and availability.
Our modeling efforts in this area include statistical methods for detecting environmental changes, such as climate change, modeling of air and water quality, and integrated modeling of economic-ecological-industrial systems. Latest advances in time series analysis, stochastic modeling, agent based modeling, and systems dynamics provide the basis for such research.
Policy and Governance
Our research activities in this area may be categorized according to the spatial scale. At the global scale we study the effect of globalization, trade, and global agreements on the environment. Examples of our research at the national and regional scale include understanding the effect and design of environmental laws and policies and effect of policies on the complexity of materials use, while examples at the local level include understanding the role of public-private partnerships for delivering municipal services. Understanding the sustainability strategies of business enterprises and sectors is another active area of research. Here our focus is on small and medium enterprises, and on comparing sustainability strategies of Indian and multinational firms. Other projects include modeling and improving the agricultural supply chain to reduce post-harvest losses and on tVhe relevance of technology for improving this chain and for the empowerment of farmers. Studies and modeling of specific economic sectors such as the hydrocarbon, transport, and electricity sectors are being used to understand changes in energy demand, the effect of regulatory reforms, and the use of green fiscal measures.
Environment and Development
For a developing country like India, the relationship between environment and development is of tremendous importance. Our research activities at this interface focus on issues such as malnutrition and gender, women's empowerment and children's nutrition, gender disparities, gender and agricultural investments, rehabilitation and resettlement issues, adaptation and vulnerability to ecosystem changes and food security. We also focus on human ecology and the role of traditional knowledge systems in sustainable development.
Understanding, developing, and managing sustainable systems requires consideration of phenomena across multiple temporal and spatial scales, and across disciplines. There is increasing realization of the need for new scientific principles that can address such challenges. Sustainability Science and Engineering is an emerging field to addresses such challenges. Our activities in this field cut across all other research areas by providing the underlying systems thinking and modeling of complex interactions. We are developing novel methods for environmental impact assessment of technological alternatives based on a life cycle view that accounts for all processes from “cradle to grave.” A unique characteristic of our work is that we can consider the role of ecological and economic systems in supporting product life cycles. We are developing scientifically rigorous methods for life cycle assessment and applying them to conventional and emerging technologies such as transportation fuels, energy technologies, nanotechnology and new materials. We are also developing new methods and tools for engineering design for sustainability, and methods for encouraging greater synergy between multiple industries and their supporting ecosystems. The resulting networks of industrial and ecological systems are expected to be such that waste from one industry is used as a resource in another, and ecosystems for providing the needed services are also available. Applications include chemical and manufacturing industries and industrial networks, urban planning, and regional development.
Biotechnology is promising as a way of using biological insight and principles for developing products that may be more sustainable. Our research is directed mainly toward plant biotechnology with primary focus on understanding and characterizing, at a molecular level, the role of regulatory elements underpinning development and other adaptive traits in plant systems. We are also studying the mechanisms regulating Calcium levels and the role played by effector molecules in plants which control the gene expression by secondary messengers and affect their abiotic stress tolerance. We employ a wide range of tools and approaches including comparative genomics, natural variation and reverse genetics, via state-of-the-art laboratory facilities. The broader environmental, economic and social implications of biotechnologies are assessed via crossdisciplinary interaction.