William W. Shilts, Executive Director

A Message from Executive Director Bill Shilts

The Prairie Research Institute continues to thrive as we carry out Illinois-focused natural and cultural resource research and service in support of the state. Our work encompasses a broad range of resource sciences, which we apply to address societal challenges faced both by our citizens and by other societies around the world. Among a myriad of other research and service projects, we provide data and expertise for drought and flood response efforts, monitor mosquito populations for West Nile virus, evaluate water supplies for growing communities, discover and catalogue archaeological sites in the path of construction, and lead one of the world’s most advanced demonstrations of geologic carbon sequestration.

Last year, our $15.8 million core state funding leveraged nearly $65 million in other funding, about half of which came from federal sources (U.S. Department of Energy [DOE], U.S. Department of the Interior, National Science Foundation, etc.) A significant amount of our funding originates in State of Illinois agencies, for which we are an increasingly important source of the research they require to fulfill their mandates, especially as their funding shrinks in response to shortfalls in state revenues.

The state legislature has provided core funding to the State Scientific Surveys since they were founded in the mid-1800s, including each year since 2008 when the Institute was established and we moved administratively from state government to the University. The Institute receives those funds as a separate line in the University’s budget. The Institute receives essentially no direct funding from the University and, like other campus units, we deliver a significant percentage of the overhead we generate from external funding to the University each year.

This year, in the midst of the severe drought, Institute scientists clearly demonstrated the value of their data and expertise to the citizens of Illinois. As members of the Governor’s Drought Task Force, our scientists provided weekly updates on drought conditions and the future outlook. The State Climatologist and colleagues gave hundreds of presentations and talks to keep farmers and residents updated. They also gave numerous interviews to state and national media, and they kept websites posted with the latest data on the drought.

Last summer the Institute released a new geophysical survey for central Illinois, which stimulated new land leases for oil and gas production. Those new seismic reflection data, acquired to help evaluate the suitability of rocks in central Illinois for large-scale storage of carbon dioxide, are part of a U.S. DOE-sponsored research project. Since seismic reflection information is commonly used in exploration for oil and gas, several companies are pursuing opportunities in a part of the state where these expensive data didn’t exist, an area not previously known for its hydrocarbon potential.

Responding to requests from the Illinois Attorney General’s office and legislative committees, Don McKay, Rob Finley, and Bob Bauer provided scientific briefings to staff and elected officials on the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology for production of oil and natural gas, as they considered potential impacts on Illinois’ natural resources and related legislation. This exemplifies the role the Surveys have played in Illinois since their founding, providing decision-makers with objective research, expertise, and data.

On July 1, 2013, the Institute will celebrate its fifth anniversary as part of the University of Illinois. Over the past two years, the upper management of this campus has changed greatly. We report to a new U of I Chancellor and new President through the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, which is now led by Dr. Peter Schiffer, who came to us in August 2012 from Pennsylvania State University; Dr. Schiffer has taken a great interest in the Institute’s program. As part of University-wide efforts to develop plans for each of its campuses, he has asked us to carry out a significant strategic planning process aimed primarily at assuring our future funding and our ability to continue to hire quality scientists to replace or retain scientific staff as they leave through retirement or are attracted by other employment opportunities.

Our plan, which will be completed by July 1, is designed to position us to address the evershifting natural and cultural resource landscape within which the state, nation, and global communities must work.

Over the past year, every Survey has been engaged in transmitting their research expertise to other states and countries who regard our applied research programs as models that can be translated to solve natural and cultural resource problems faced by their own citizens. In 2012, our annual Midwest Carbon Sequestration Science Conference attracted one-fourth of its 120 participants from countries outside the U.S., including Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Norway, Republic of Korea, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Institute water scientists collaborated with Zhejiang University and the University of Leeds to organize a major conference in Hangzhou, China with the goal of developing an international research community focused on identifying and delivering the best solutions to water quality problems.

In January, Gary Miller, Brian Anderson, and I spent a week at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) on its Reno and Las Vegas campuses to exchange research and funding strategies between our broadly similar Institutes. While our relationships with our respective state university systems differ in some fundamental ways, there are many administrative and research strategies that both Institutes share. Later in 2013, we will host DRI scientists and leaders to continue the constructive dialogue initiated in Nevada. Gary Miller and Mike Demissie also visited colleagues at the University of Oklahoma who are looking to establish a state-focused research institute similar to the Prairie Research Institute.

Finally, as I write this brief message, we are working on strategies to preserve our state and federal funding to the extent that we can, given announced and expected cuts to federal and state research funding that are projected for the next fiscal year. We are addressing these contingencies by maintaining close contact with our political and research partners at both the state and federal levels.

Updated 04/19/13 AW

William W. Shilts, Executive Director
615 E. Peabody Drive, MC-650
Champaign, IL 61820
Phone: 217-333-5111
Fax: 217-265-4678

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