If nature put us on a low-lying plain, subject to rising sea levels and subsiding land mass, why not make an industry out of our problems?
That’s the question posed by backers of a “water institute” that would attempt to make Louisiana’s struggles with the sea into a source of ideas or even jobs for the future.
Pushed by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the state also is backing the idea of an independent organization that would assess the progress of coastal protection and restoration, and do high-level research into Louisiana’s almost unique situation.
All this seems like a good idea. Louisiana’s situation is not unique — sea-level rise is a worldwide phenomenon — but our coastline is among the nation’s most vulnerable to storms and subsidence. Our “laboratory” for study of coastal issues is quite possibly a place where scholars and engineers and others in related fields could find solutions for not just our situation but the world’s issues with sea-level rise.
At the same time, do we have the resources to make this institute work? Universities and governments around the world are on a relentless search for the top thinkers in almost every field. That costs operating money, compared with which starting an institute or building a flashy headquarters is chump change.
Louisiana has difficulty today competing with universities across the South and the nation for top researchers. LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center has a new clinical building half-empty because basic state support has been cut for the center. Our basic intellectual infrastructure isn’t sufficiently supported today, in our view.
A new institute will be able to draw upon researchers already working in these areas in universities or agencies around the state — where state support is going down, not up — and that in turn might allow a new institute to leverage research grants and its own funding sources, whether public or private, to be more effective.
The backers of the water institute will present their plans over the course of the next few months. We hope they are fashioned with the long view in mind. Declaring Louisiana will be a center for ocean-related research is to commit to expensive and long-term competition for the world’s best minds.
Those don’t come cheaply.