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Phosphorus (P) is an essential element to life and, with few exceptions, a necessary fertilizer for high agricultural yield. Because P cannot be manufactured and global supply is limited, this chemical element poses a unique, double-sided threat to sustainability. P scarcity leads to high prices and poverty for poor farmers in developing countries, but in industrialized nations, excess P from farms and in urban waste streams degrades downstream water quality. The issues surrounding P sustainability are deeply complex and involve diverse geological, biogeochemical, economic, and geopolitical dimensions that are currently unconsolidated. Environmental degradation due to nutrient runoff and potential threats to global food security urgently call for an end to this disjointed approach to phosphorus. The goal of the P Sustainability Research Coordination Network (RCN) is to spark an interdisciplinary synthesis of data, perspectives, and understanding about phosphorus to identify and implement solutions for P sustainability.

The RCN theme, objectives, and initial topics build upon broad agreement on key P sustainability challenges reached at a recent Sustainable P Summit (SPS) led by James Elser and colleague Dan Childers. The RCN will involve two phases centered on three Challenge Areas. Phase I groups will work on two Challenges: (1) Improving P efficiency in food production; (2) Developing robust pathways of P recycling. At the Kick-off Workshop, identified Core Members will develop Working Groups centered around these challenge areas. These Groups will be further populated with At-Large Members recruited through a widely advertised application process that will allow us to target qualified graduate students, postdocs, and members of under-represented groups. In Year 3, a Synthesis Workshop will report on the science and solution outcomes from Phase I and develop new Phase II Working Groups focused on Challenge 3: Integrating efficiency and recycling to create a sustainable food system. A Wrap-up Workshop, held early in Year 5, will be held to report on science and solution outcomes from Phase II and provide the push to finalize outcomes.

Central to the P Sustainability RCN will be recruitment of a diverse network of participants of different professions, ranks, genders, races, ethnicities, and nationalities. The Steering Committee will reflect this diversity, including three students in ex officio capacity, giving them invaluable experience in leadership, networking, collaborative science, and policy. To communicate key aspects of RCN work, we will produce two dynamic, high-quality videos to reach targeted audiences of farmers, educators, fertilizer industry, and policy makers. The three RCN Workshops will be held in Washington DC in order to facilitate participation by policy makers, government officials, representatives of agriculture and the fertilizer industry, and urban planners with the aim of developing research priorities for the RCN, presenting outcomes and planning implementation of sustainability solutions.


National Science Foundation, Division of Chemistry


September 2012 — August 2017