Nevada’s Desert Research Institute marks 50 years
April 8, 2009
RENO ” A half century ago, a two-page bill passed by the state Legislature planted a seed of knowledge in the Nevada desert that over the decades has grown tentacles of discovery around the globe.
The measure, signed into law by then Gov. Grant Sawyer on March 23, 1959, authorized establishment of the Desert Research Institute at the University of Nevada, Reno.
From the beginning its goals were lofty: “To foster and to conduct fundamental scientific, economic, social or educational investigations” and “encourage and foster a desire for research on the part of students and faculty.”
Nevada’s population was less than 300,000 then and the state was known more for gambling and quickie divorces than scientific research.
“I think it says quite a bit about the Legislature and the governor at the time,” said Stephen Wells, president of the institute now called DRI.
“These people had a vision,” Wells said.
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Wells said the institute wasn’t alone in its venture. At a time when the space race was on and atomic testing was under way, many research institutes were created in the United States.
“There was no guarantee that it would ever be successful,” he said.
Fifty years later DRI can look back and point to the role it played in discoveries and applications around the world, from early efforts to monitor groundwater in the Great Basin to using sensors in space to find scarce water in Africa. Researchers from the institute made breakthroughs in tracking the origin, disbursement and distant effects of air pollutants and today are plotting global climate changes by studying ice cores at the poles.
Desert Research Institute first operated out of various buildings on the UNR campus. In 1962, it opened a Las Vegas location in a converted restaurant, and later moved to a renovated duplex.
In its first year it brought in about $2.5 million in research support. Today, that figure is $40 million from grants and contracts.
From the beginning, the institute’s operating model was unique. As an autonomous facility, researchers would not be afforded tenure, as are veteran university faculty members. Instead, they were to find their own project funding.
It was a liberating concept by the institute’s first director, atmospheric physicist Wendell Mordy, said Joy Leland, one of the first employees hired at the institute in 1961.
“His idea was that at so many places, scientists are sidetracked with all that’s involved in teaching,” Leland said.
“It was a very unusual situation for academia, and I think it all made us feel sort of independent, doing our own thing,” she said.
That independence has attracted scientists from around the world, Wells said.
No tenure and reliance on grants and contracts, he said, “actually has been one of the reasons for long-term success.”
“Not everyone can operate in that environment,” he said. “The people who stay, they thrive and survive in handling the challenges and the stresses.”
As a result, he said, the scientists are the institute’s greatest resource.
“The talent that comes to DRI is pretty remarkable,” Wells said. “They could go to any institution they wanted to. But they come here and stay here because we let them dream their dreams.”
Today, DRI has campuses on both ends of the state, as well as satellite or shared facilities in Boulder City, Incline Village at Lake Tahoe and Steamboat Springs, Colo., where scientists study storm and cloud physics from within the clouds at a high elevation laboratory.
The institute employs about 500 people and at any given time has some 300 research projects under way in all corners of the globe.
Its growth is evidenced by DRI’s annual award, the Nevada Medal, a coveted honor in the scientific community. Now in its 22nd year, the award recognizes outstanding international achievement in science, engineering and technology. This year’s medal will be presented next month to Dr. Francis Sellers Collins, a geneticist who helped lead the breakthrough unraveling of the human genetic code.
In it’s early days, studies of desert hydrology and climate chemistry helped spur DRI’s reputation, Wells said.
One early researcher, George Maxey, helped develop the first scientific method for estimating groundwater recharge in the Great Basin and other similar environments. Through work at the Nevada Test Site, the institute also was in the forefront of tracking groundwater movements.
“That set DRI in motion,” Wells said. “We’ve been doing that since the first days.”
Early projects included weather modification, such as cloud seeding to eek out more moisture from winter storms, and research in atmospheric chemistry, which led to the ability to fingerprint air pollution and determine the origin of pollutants.
“That’s become one of our major hallmarks of research,” Wells said.
In the 1980s, former DRI President James Taranik initiated a push toward aerospace remote sensing to study the Earth, an area in which he was internationally known.
That technology was used to find suitable drinking water wells for remote villagers in Ghana in West Africa.
Other notable projects include continued research of ice cores in the Arctic and Antarctica for insight into climate change, and assisting in studying air pollution that threatens the ancient Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses in China.
Wells said the future of research will undoubtedly focus not only on a changing planet, but how life forms respond to those changes.
On March 3, 1980, four DRI employees were killed in a plane crash over the Sierra while on a research flight. Among those killed was Peter Wagner, an atmospheric physicist and husband of former longtime Nevada legislator and Lt. Gov. Sue Wagner, now a member of the Nevada Gaming Commission.
After his death, Sue Wagner created an endowment to fund the Peter B. Wagner Medal of Excellence, which recognizes achievements of DRI scholars early in their careers.Another honor, the Peter B. Wagner Memorial Award, also is given annually and is open to young women nationwide pursuing advanced studies in atmospheric sciences.
The prize money, $1,500, is minimal, Wagner said. But the award itself carries prestige.
“I was talking with a young woman who told me it’s not about the money,” Wagner said. “By putting it on their resume, that they won this Peter B. Wagner Award, it’s much more important than money.
“The stature of DRI has grown,” she said.