Meet the President: Dr. Peter Goodwin

October 9, 2017

In September, Dr. Peter Goodwin joined the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science as its sixth chief executive. He is an internationally recognized expert in ecosystem restoration, ecohydraulics, and enhancement of river, wetland and estuarine systems, and has spent 30 years in higher education. From the President’s Office at the headquarters along the Choptank River in Cambridge, Maryland, Dr. Goodwin shares more about himself and his vision for the future.

What brings you to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science?

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science is really unique as an independent institution totally focused on the environment and graduate education. The diversity and depth of research activities surrounding the environment allows this institution to be uniquely poised to take on many of the grand challenges in sustaining a desirable and resilient environment for future generations.

The national and global reputation of the work done here is quite extraordinary. Two weeks before I started, I was at an international conference in Asia, and one of the keynote speakers called out the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science as making perhaps the largest single contribution by an institution of scientific advances in the estuarine and ocean sciences. That’s quite a reputation.

I also knew a lot about the contribution of many of the faculty here. It is a long list of individuals that are known internationally for their research activities.

You have decades of experience bringing together scientists and communities to collaborate on science. Could you tell us more about the work you’ve DONE?

I have been working on ecosystem restoration, ecohydraulics, and the enhancement of river, wetland and estuarine systems for more than 30 years, from Chile and Asia, and from the Delaware Bay to California.

I am the founding director of the Center for Ecohydraulics Research at the University of Idaho, an interdisciplinary group working on the simulation of ecological response to management actions or changes in physical processes of rivers, lakes, estuaries and wetlands. I recently served a federal appointment in California as the lead scientist for the Delta Science Program to support mandated goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem recovery, thinking through how do you bring all of the various interests and researchers together to pursue a common science agenda.

I’m also heavily involved with a group called International Association for Hydro-Environment Engineering and Research, which is the oldest international research association on water research in the world. In that organization, we try and structure research knowledge around engineering and science to inform large-scale water management projects, global water security and sustainability development goals.

What are some of the challenges that we are facing in the environment today?

I think the first issue is ensuring that our society and our communities understand how lives can be altered in the coming decades as a result of how we manage the environment—or not manage our environment—today, and having that understanding to ensure that decisions that guide these alternative futures reflect what society would like to see in the short term and for future generations. 

In our ecosystems we are approaching thresholds where there will be irreversible change. Can we anticipate these kinds of events, and what are the consequences if we do pass these tipping points? Moving toward these critical points could be caused by many different things. It could be impacts from climate change, a new invasive species into the system, emerging contaminants affecting water quality, population pressures on existing infrastructure or development.

Structuring science to inform policy and management actions, as well as informing communities of likely outcomes is extremely important. The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, through our Laboratories, Maryland Sea Grant and the Integration and Application Network (IAN), truly excels at this communication. It seems to be in the DNA of our researchers!

How can science make a difference?

Science around environmental issues is complex. Look at the challenge of how we manage sea-level rise to sustain tidal wetlands, for example. How do we restore wetlands in a way that maintains all the benefits they provide, from reducing flood risks to carbon sequestration? Ensuring that those tidal wetlands retain the ecological value that they have today is going to be a challenge because when you start contemplating restoration on a landscape scale, there are going to be unintended consequences that need to be anticipated, such as release of toxic materials. There needs to be flexibility in how we undertake those restoration activities to account for these changes, and these can be immensely complex issue to deal with.

So developing the science to understand this evolution, to get ahead of the curve and anticipate what could be done to minimize unintended consequences, to maximize benefits that everybody had agreed to when this project was conceived requires a long-term commitment of researchers and resources, as well as the ability to change strategy as we understand how the system evolves. Local communities also need to have a say in the outcome, as well as businesses and industry that could be affected by those decisions.

What about Chesapeake Bay restoration?

The Chesapeake Bay has turned the corner compared with a couple of decades ago. In fact, it’s one of the large ecosystems in the world that has made significant progress. The crabs are back. The water quality is improving. Sea grasses are being observed in locations where they have not been observed for decades. Real progress is being made here. I think the important thing is not to take our foot off the accelerator. Now that we are making progress, we must ensure that these improvements continue. Failure to do so could negate the major financial investments made over the past two decades by the oyster and fisheries resources entities, townships, counties, cities, the  state and the federal government. If we are going to solve this problem, people must continue to work together and to maintain this common goal.

What do you see as the biggest opportunities at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science?

Scientists at each of the four laboratories are making major contributions—not just on issues relating to Maryland, but often the research is affecting the United States or is contributing to solutions around the world. It has impressed me deeply that the culture here is to ensure our scientific research is relevant to Maryland and the nation.

I think the biggest opportunity that we have is scaling up the expertise that we have spread out at our campuses throughout Maryland to really tackle some of the bigger and more difficult challenges related to the environment. We have the ability as an independent research institution to develop science that is legitimate, relevant, credible, and transparent to help inform some of the difficult decisions that will have to be made in the coming decades.

Final thoughts?

It’s great to be part of the team and I am very excited to see what we can do to expand and enhance our commitment to the people of Maryland. There’s been a long tradition in ensuring the integrity of the Maryland environment for future generations. I’m also very excited to see how we partner with colleagues throughout the U.S. and globally to really maximize the impact and relevance of the research that’s going on here to address what truly are global issues.