Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

What is CNR (College of Natural Resources)?

By David Zilberman

Especially at the start of the semester, I am frequently asked by students, parents, sponsors, and otherwise curious people, what is the College of Natural Resources. I actually asked it myself; and over the years I think that I got the answer. The college embodies all the contradictions, practical deliberations, and social debate relating to agriculture, the environment, natural resources, and biotechnology.

The CNR, like any living thing, is a work in progress. It originated from the merger of two old-fashioned schools: the school of agriculture and the school of forestry that aimed to form a school with a cool name, the College of Natural Resources.

But this name is misleading. For instance, minerals are natural resources and we do not have a mining division, and humans are natural resources and we lack a focus on medicine. So perhaps the school should have been called the College of Agriculture, Food and the Environment, in short, CAFÉ. Which would have been cool but also realistic. This name would also be consistent with the structure of the college – it has four departments, agricultural resource economics (ARE), nutrition and toxicology (NST), plant and microbial biology (PMB) and environmental science policy and management (ESPM) (which is less cool than ESPN, the sports network, Go Bears!).

Recently, another unit, the Energy & Resources Group (ERG) joined the College, and ARE is adopting the Energy Institute, so the accurate name should be CAFEE! These developments tell us that schools are living things: they can be re-organized and adapt to the changing times. I am sure that structures will change, but research on these topics will continue here at Berkeley.

While the content of CNR is evolving around several themes, a key element of its identify is that it is a professional school, which means that it emphasizes finding solutions to problems rather than only understanding and analyzing various phenomena. To some extent CNR is to biology what engineering is to science. I believe that the 21st century will be the century of life sciences and the bioeconomy, and thus the College is set for success if we are opportunistic, and with that our students will be employable.

While here, students benefit from an endearing feature of CNR: it is student-friendly. In our smaller college, faculty are approachable and students form collaborative networks. Another worthy feature of the college is having cooperative extension specialists. These are researchers who link the research at Berkeley with the needs of the practitioners in the field (farm advisors, policy makers, farmers and foresters, NGOs, etc). I have a 15% appointment as a specialist, and have enjoyed the real world inspiration that it has provided me.

The current challenge of the College is to develop a unique entity, and loyalty among faculty, alumna, and students. The loyalty of faculty members traditionally is to their departments. When I was a graduate student and young faculty member, I knew and loved ARE. It has a great tradition, being the best agricultural economics department in the world (at least in our minds and in the NRC survey). But, I did not know, nor did I care, in which college I worked. The dean of the college was a problem of the chair and the college bureaucracy, a barrier to the smooth flow of resources from different sources to the department.

All this has changed gradually. Over the years CNR has built an identity for itself by establishing several common undergraduate programs, various centers of research, a summer program (Beahrs ELP), a masters program (MDP), and an international program. While the college is rooted in California, its research and education program address global issues – and it has become a hub for international development research and outreach for the Berkeley campus.

But the real driver that led to the strengthening of the College has been economies of scale; administrative functions have moved from the department to the college and now to the university, and while the quality of service has sometimes declined (at least in my humble opinion), I am an optimist and believe that they will figure it out before I retire. It seems, or I hope, that centralization of functions has saved resources and one of the undisputed benefits of it is that we have a central development fundraising office. The office has already accomplished quite a lot.

Another benefit of the centralization is that we enhance conversation among and between disciplines. And as I got to know my college (and colleagues) better, I realized that it encompasses all the conflicts and challenges of agricultural and natural resource sciences. CNR has excellent plant biologists who advance frontiers in genetic engineering and agro-ecologists who develop new approaches to organic farming. Our agricultural economists that see an important role to corporations, market forces as well government regulations in agriculture, and our food institute that has embraced a naturalist, slow-food approach to agriculture and food systems. We have cutting edge research programs on climate change, food and nutrition, biodiversity, preservation, forestry, range management, water sciences, economic development, and alternative energy.

Most of the time we still operate in parallel in our separate silos, but slowly barriers are breaking and creative collaborations emerge. Researchers in CNR increasingly address cross-disciplinary topics -- like sustainable development, climate change, and the bioeconomy -- that tend to shake the disciplinary walls.

For the enlightened student, CNR can provide a rare exposure to alternative and opposing perspectives as well as a path to diverse career paths. In the college-wide programs like the ELP and the MDP, we try to provide a space to present alternative perspectives, and some graduate students have been creative in integrating differing approaches to address research challenges.

Universities are places where multiple paradigms coevolve and compete -- and that is happening now in CNR. Because we emphasize alternative approaches to study nature, we can incorporate all of these views, achieve excellence through diversity, and let a thousand flowers bloom.