Nitrogen reduction challenge is creative way of saving Gulf

Tulane will announce the winner of its Nitrogen Reduction Challenge on Dec. 14. This contest is the first Tulane Grand Challenge Prize and represents the university’s dedication to playing a larger, positive role in the community of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. By encouraging innovation through a monetary incentive, the contest could be an be excellent model for future projects aimed at solving serious public problems.

As part of the challenge, Tulane is offering $1 million to the team that creates the best method or device for reducing nitrogen runoff from agricultural activities. Over the summer, four teams of finalists from across the country conducted experiments using corn fields in northeast Louisiana to see which ideas were most successful. These tests were also supported by the Hardwick family, which used its family farm to help the teams fine-tune their solutions.

This kind of engagement, involving both the private sector and the academic community, shows how Tulane can use challenges to bring together different actors and promote collaboration aimed at improving the greater good.

Excessive nitrogen runoff is a serious problem that has led to the creation of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. This is formed when nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers used in farming and sewage treatment enter the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, which then flow into the Gulf of Mexico. The top layer of water, composed of phosphorous and nitrogen, creates an algae bloom each spring, which uses up all the oxygen. The result is hypoxia, a condition that causes fish to leave the area and kills bottom-dwelling organisms that cannot get away. This disrupts the food chain and harms the commercial fishing industry.

Nitrogen runoff affects Tulane students directly. Scott Cowen, president emeritus of Tulane University, wrote in a letter to the Tulane community that the dead zone is “a global problem that sweeps past our very doorstep.” This is because Tulane’s campuses located throughout New Orleans are all located close to the banks of the Mississippi River, which carries much of the pollution to the Gulf of Mexico.

Tulane is not the first institution to use the Grand Challenge model to spur innovation and combat large-scale issues. The Grand Challenges program was created as a part of President Barack Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation. The program calls on institutions from both the private and public sectors to address the most pressing issues of this century, ranging from national security to job creation.

By initiating the Nitrogen Reduction Challenge, Tulane joins the ranks of the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation in creating opportunities for researchers to pursue meaningful projects that benefit the larger community.

Though the current administration proposes budgets cutting millions of dollars of funding from agencies that perform vital scientific research, it is crucial that private institutions, like Tulane, use their resources to support the continued advancement of scientific inquiry. Grand Challenges like this serve an increasingly critical role in tackling complicated problems. Tulane’s decision to be proactive and encourage scientific research represents a meaningful way to give back to the community.

This is an opinion article and does not reflect the views of The Tulane Hullabaloo. Madeline is a sophomore at Newcomb-Tulane College. She can be reached at [email protected]

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