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Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment at 15

Apr 15, 2019

“As the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment turns 15, it is exciting to reflect on how far Stanford has come as a leader on environmental research and solutions, and it is sobering to think about how far we have yet to go.” – Perry L. McCarty Director Chris Field

For the past 15 years, the Stanford Woods Institute has served as the hub for environmental research and collaboration at Stanford, promoting interdisciplinary work to solve multifaceted environmental challenges. 


In 2004 Stanford President John Hennessy launched a new interdisciplinary institute for the environment — an independent center designed to serve as an umbrella organization for environmental research and leadership education at Stanford University.

Since then, the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Institute for the Environment — commonly known as the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment — has become the primary hub for world-class scholars across campus to collaborate on solutions to the great environmental challenges facing our planet. 

Some of our most daunting challenges are environmental ones: How can we build a world that supports sustainable development for our children’s children’s children? Today, between 1 billion and 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, resulting in a devastating array of public health problems and disease. At the same time, we are literally changing the face of the planet: Human activities are driving the extinction of species at faster rates than we have ever seen. The world population is expected to grow by several billion people over the next half-century, and the world’s energy demands are likely to grow even faster. The challenges before us are critical and enormous. In recent years, we started asking ourselves: Given the university’s great research and education programs, how can Stanford most effectively contribute to addressing these complex problems? - Stanford President John Hennessy, 2004

In 2000, shortly after Hennessy became president of Stanford, he announced plans to assess 21st Century priorities. That year the Provost’s Committee on the Environment, chaired by Professor Peter Vitousek, produced a report calling for a “major initiative” to make Stanford “a national leader in providing solutions for environmental problems.” This effort resulted in the 2003 creation of the campus-wide Initiative on Environment and Sustainability.

“The mission of the initiative is to promote an environmentally sound and sustainable world by identifying current and future environmental problems and challenges,” Vitousek said in a presentation to the Faculty Senate. “We will develop creative solutions to these challenges through the integration of science, technology and policy — and effectively communicate our findings beyond Stanford.”

While the Provost Committee created a blueprint for collaboration between faculty and staff from various schools within the university, Hennessy launched the Stanford Institute for the Environment in 2004 to serve as the initiative’s centerpiece and focal point. He appointed Professors Buzz Thompson and Jeff Koseff as its founding faculty directors. 

The Institute was envisioned as a unique hub for Stanford’s environmental researchers, bringing together experts from across the university’s seven schools to pursue interdisciplinary, solutions-oriented research addressing the planet’s most complex environmental challenges.

Visionary supporters helped the Institute grow quickly. Many of these early donors would later form the Institute’s Advisory Council. In 2006 the Institute was formally renamed for Stanford trustee Ward W. Woods, and his wife, Priscilla, whose significant contribution supports innovative environmental programs and collaborative research.

When the Center for Environmental Science and Policy in the Freeman-Spogli Institute was dissolved in 2007, many of its programs were incorporated into the Stanford Woods Institute and most of its core faculty became senior fellows at the Institute.

In 2016, world-renowned scientist and former chairman of Working Group II of the IPCC Chris Field took over as director. Since the beginning of his tenure leading the Institute, Field has continued the commitment to interdisciplinarity and focused on big picture problems where Stanford can make a measurable impact at scale. 


Since its founding, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment has expanded its reach to encompass projects and research on every continent except Antarctica. Its community has grown from a handful of committed faculty to more than 245 fellows, affiliated faculty and researchers.

The Stanford Woods Institute’s size and scope have been enlarged over the years to include research and education in several focal areas: climate, conservation, food security, freshwater, natural capital, oceans, public health and sustainability.

Similarly, the Stanford Woods Institute’s list of partners, centers and programs has expanded to include: the Center for Ocean Solutions; Natural Capital Project; Center for Food Security and the Environment; Water in the West program; Disease Ecology, Health and the Environment program; Stanford Environment Assessment Facility; Global Freshwater Initiative; Osa and Golfito Initiative; and Water, Health and Development program. The Institute also has a Washington, D.C., office to further engagement with the federal government and national policymakers. The educational and leadership programs offered through the Institute have inspired and better prepared hundreds of current and emerging environmental leaders. The Mel Lane Student Grants Program, for example, has empowered dozens of Stanford students to realize their visions for environment and sustainability projects that make a measurable impact through action or applied academic research.

The Institute’s Environmental Ventures Project and Realizing Environmental Innovation Program grants have awarded more than $14.5 million to 94 research teams representing all seven of Stanford’s academic schools to enable the development of environmental solutions. A series of “Stanford Woods Environmental Conversations” events have brought leaders such as Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada, Former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, and renowned climate scientist Michael Mann to Stanford to discuss their careers and ideas. In 2018 alone, Stanford researchers published more than 500 environment-related papers with contributions from each of Stanford’s schools. The publications address a wide range of environmental issues, focusing on challenges, solutions, and understanding the way nature works.

“The stakes for the future couldn’t be higher. We need to provide information and facilitate action on the wide range of challenges facing the human species and the world we live in," said Field. “Moving forward, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment is uniquely positioned to remain a powerhouse for catalyzing collaboration, research, and real solutions.”

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Christine H. Black
Associate Director, Communications

Devon Ryan
Communications Manager

Rob Jordan
Editor / Senior Writer