At the Institute of the Environment, our mission is to discover, research, and solve pressing environmental and human health challenges.

As humanity is increasingly confronted with existential threats of diminishing natural resource supplies, environmental degradation, climate change, pollution, disease, and social unrest, we at the Institute are poised to unleash our unique, inter-disciplinary approach to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.  

Our work is motivated by the unrivaled power of collaborative action and a shared, common belief that all people deserve access to clear air, safe drinking water, healthy food, and a robust natural environment – the foundations of a prosperous economy and secure and sustainable society.  

At the Institute of the Environment, we strive to develop innovative solutions to help us achieve our overarching goals for disruptive problem-solving through novel research, education, and outreach activities. This is a time like no other in which we are ready to guide the world through the environmental challenges of the 21st century – indeed, it’s part and parcel our collective DNA.

History of the Institute

The founding of the Institute of the Environment in 1997 was a monumental achievement for visionary academics. It was the culmination of over 30 years of strong leadership in environmental research, interdisciplinary collaboration, and campus and system-wide endorsement. It was built upon the success of an earlier prototype, the Institute of Ecology (IOE). Founded in 1966 by Professor Charles Goldman in Zoology, the Institute of Ecology was the first environmental institute in California and one of the earliest in the nation. 

The Institute of the Environment was officially launched as an Organized Research Unit in 1997, with the name John Muir Institute of the Environment.  Chancellor Theodore Hullar (1987-1994) was the first to coin the name “John Muir Institute” in connection with a campus-wide environmental entity.

Bob Flocchini, Department of Land, Air and Water Resources, was the acting director for the first five years. Under the direction of Flocchini, the institute established itself as an administrative home for centers and programs which crossed the boundaries of traditional academic colleges, schools and departments. Goldman’s 30-year-old research center at Tahoe was first to join the new institute. 

In 2002 Dennis Rolston was recruited as director of the institute for a 3-year term, during which he continued to provide a home for interdisciplinary centers and programs. He provided advanced leadership and support for evolving centers and developing environmental initiatives and established the affiliated faculty program to garner collaboration between UC Davis environmental experts who were not necessarily tied to a center or program. Rolston also worked to build and locate campus and off-campus facilities that could host centers supported by the institute. 

In 2005, a plan to establish the institute as an “enhanced” Organized Research Unit was developed. This enlarged the scope and range institute activities to form an innovative research unit vested with interdisciplinary academic program responsibilities and limited assigned staffing. Deb Niemeier, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, became director July 1, 2005, with a joint appointment as associate vice chancellor for interdisciplinary environmental research in the Office of the Vice Chancellor of Research. The enhanced institute promotes interdisciplinary research and graduate education in applied environmental problem solving. 

In 2010, Mark Schwartz, Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, became director of the Institute, during which time the Institute made great strides in formalizing connections with prominent federal agencies. The Institute’s on-campus building, referred to as “The Barn,” became the new physical space for the Western Ecological Research Center, the US Forest Service for the Pacific Southwest Research Stations (North, Stine) and US Department of Agriculture Climate Hub.  The Institute also formalized work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service through student projects and became a partner of the newly formed US Geologic Survey Climate Science Center. During this time that the Institute was also approved to jointly administer the new UC Davis Master of Science Environmental Policy and Management program.  

In 2016, Benjamin Houlton became the Director of the Institute. Houlton made great strides establishing the Institute as the inter-college Environmental Nexus for the campus, the state of California, and beyond. To fulfill that role, Houlton has catalyzed a new integrative model for the Institute that bridges UC Davis’ collective expertise in social sciences, arts and letters, as well as natural and health sciences and engineering. Houlton also spearheaded the OneClimate initiative and solidified the Institute's position as a locally, regionally and globally recognized center of excellence in Big Environmental Data.

Looking to the Future

The Institute of the Environment was created to harness and integrate the dispersed environmental strength of UC Davis. It provides leadership and promotes visibility to benefit all the environmental units of the campus. In 2020, Susan Ustin took over as Interim Director. In September 2021, Isabel Montañez became the Director of the Institute. She is leading an Institute-wide effort to broaden its reach and revitalize its vision and is championing an initiative to build a campus-wide Climate Coalition that will synergize research and outreach efforts in climate change impacts, mitigation and adaption.