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A win for the environment and the economy in the Southwest

The National Science Foundation (NSF) on Monday announced the University of Utah along with six core academic partners will be part of a multi-institutional enterprise to confront the climate challenges facing the desert Southwest and spur economic development in the region.

The effects of climate change are acutely evident in the American Southwest, from the desertification of Utah’s Great Salt Lake to the record-breaking extreme heat in Arizona and the dwindling supply of the Colorado River reaching Nevada.

NSF Engines: Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine (SWSIE) will use these challenges to catalyze economic opportunity and seeks to establish the Southwest as a leader in carbon capture, water security and renewable energy and bring high-wage industries to the region. SWSIE unites academic, community, nonprofit and industry partners across Arizona, Nevada and Utah that are committed to this goal.

SWSIE is among the first proposals selected by the NSF to establish a Regional Innovation Engine, a first-of-its-kind NSF program to create focused research and technology transfer hubs. The NSF will fund SWSIE’s initial development and growth with $15 million over the next two years. The engine can be renewed for up to 10 years with $160 million in funding available for each Regional Engine.

The U’s core academic partners in SWSIE are Arizona State University, who serve as the lead partner of the project, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the Desert Research Institute, the Water Research Foundation, SciTech Institute and Maricopa Community Colleges.

University of Utah research overview 

Recognized as an R1 Institution for very high research activity and as a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, the University of Utah is a top tier research institution dedicated to innovation and discovery, leading the way in research that impacts our global community.

The U is recognized—both historically and contemporarily, for its many notable research achievements; a research portfolio topping over $768M in research funding (FY23); and having a distinguished research community cultivated through its 18 colleges, 35 interdisciplinary programs, over 100 academic departments, and 120 centers/institutes across campus.

Driven by the U’s mission to find solutions for society’s critical challenges, SWSIE is an opportunity to tackle one of the biggest threats to our state and region through innovation and collaboration—all while driving economic prosperity.

“Scorching heat waves are a threat to our region, but threats can also drive innovation,” said Dr. Jakob D. Jensen, Associate Vice President for Research at the University of Utah. “Humans have an amazing ability to find solutions when we need them most. SWSIE provides the entire region with a platform to develop, cultivate, and implement technologies that can transform these threats into opportunities.”

The U’s scope of work for SWSIE

Building from existing partnerships and expertise, the University of Utah team will advance technology and policy innovation in the water-energy nexus, nature-based climate solutions and carbon markets, and workforce development for future needs in energy and water that span science, innovation, and policy. The U’s SWSIE team efforts will be coordinated through several existing centers, institutes, and programs that focus on water, energy, and sustainability.

The team includes over 20 senior personnel including faculty from the Departments of Atmospheric Sciences, Biological Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Communications, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Geography and Geology and Geophysics.

The work in Utah will align University of Utah research with regional priorities in partnership with neighborhoods, nonprofits, municipalities and utilities, private industry and startups. SWSIE will be on advancing technology and policy innovation at water-energy nexus spanning the Great Salt Lake Watershed to the Colorado River basin.

“We are so thrilled to have the opportunity to grow academic, industry, and community partnerships that unite Utah, Nevada, and Arizona as we innovate sustainable solutions for water, energy, and carbon.” said Dr. Brenda Bowen, co-PI on the SWSIE project and University of Utah lead. “This is work that needs to happen, and this award will allow us to align our efforts to maximize the positive impacts across the region.”

A group of people stand against a window in a building.


Among the more than 50 partners constituting NSF Engines: Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine are regional leaders, local governments and municipalities. Representatives from across the Southwest met in Tempe, Arizona, in late 2023 to discuss their unique sustainability needs. Front row, from left: Kim Rodela, Utah Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget; Brenda Bowen, University of Utah; Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego; Terri Kimble, Chandler Chamber of Commerce; and David Hatchett, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Back row, from left: Lance Soffe, Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity; Brian Sherman, Arizona Commerce Authority; Sally Morton, executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise; and Jimmy Humm, Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

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The U’s leadership team

Dr. Brenda Bowen is a co-PI on the SWSIE project and serves as the University of Utah lead. On the RIE leadership team, she is the co-lead of the community development working group. Dr. Bowen is a professor of geology and geophysics, chair of atmospheric sciences, and director of the Global Change and Sustainability Center at the University of Utah.

Dr. Meghan Dovick is on the RIE leadership team and serves as co-lead of career technical training as a part of the workforce development working group. Dr. Dovick is director of the Professional Master of Science and Technology at the University of Utah.

Dr. Sarah Hinners is on the RIE leadership team and serves as co-lead of the visioning and roadmapping working group. Dr. Hinners is the director of research and conservation at Red Butte Garden at the University of Utah.

Dr. Milind Deo is on the RIE leadership team and serves as co-lead of Carbon Innovation within the Co-Innovation working group. Dr. Deo is a professor of chemical engineering and director of the Energy Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah.

Funding information

Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine is funded by the National Science Foundation, Award Number 2315479.


Photo on homepage by Emanuela Meli


  • Xoel Cardenas Senior Communications Specialist, Office of the Vice President of Research