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Since its establishment at ASU over a decade ago, CSPO and, later, SFIS have gained national and international acclaim for use-inspired, socially transformational research. 2016 brings the addition of the Institute for the Future of Innovation in Society (IFIS), which enhances the school’s public engagement and impact while its academic programs expand to offer undergraduate degrees in addition to the four graduate degrees. There was a time, however, not long ago, when SFIS had yet to be imagined and CSPO’s personnel could be counted on one hand.
Lori Hidinger, Director of Fiscal and Business Operations for SFIS and IFIS and Managing Director of CSPO at ASU, was there at the earliest days. When President Michael Crow approached Dan Sarewitz about establishing a home for the think tank at ASU, Sarewitz started asking around for someone to run it. Hidinger, then with the Ecological Society of America, was recommended. “I was a little hesitant at first,” Hidinger said. “I’d grown up in D.C. and I would be leaving lots of friends and family, but it seemed like such an interesting opportunity and I decided it was time to shake up my life a little bit.”
Bold though the decision may have been, it should come as no surprise from Hidinger, who turned down admission to medical school after majoring in zoology. As a young girl, Elsa, the lioness in Joy Adams’ Born Free, solidified a deep love and appreciation for the natural world. “I was much more interested in the ecological side of zoology, and when I got into medical school, I decided that just wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.”
Instead, she went to work for an environmental consulting firm. Eventually she went back to school for her master’s in Environmental Management at Duke’s Nicholas School for the Environment in the early 90s, conducting her Master’s project in Tikail National Park in Guatemala. After graduating, she began working in an organizational capacity at the Ecological Society of America, a membership-based organization of ecologists that published several journals and staffed various science programs. The job ensured that she was well prepared when the offer from Sarewitz came.
CSPO officially launched at ASU in April of 2004, with Sarewitz, Hidinger, and one student worker. The first order of business was to get a proposal in for an NSF grant to fund the Center for Nanotechnology in Society. They established institutional relationships, such as that with Oxford’s Said Business School and the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at Colorado, and started collecting individual affiliates.
Staffing faculty proved a little difficult at first. After the initial search Hidinger and the others conducted, they made two offers – both of which were rejected. “At the time,” she said, “we weren’t an academic unit, so they would have needed to find an academic home somewhere else in the university.” But the nascent CSPO developed a better idea of what they were looking for and subsequent searches were more fruitful.
Hidinger is instrumental in the search for and hiring of new faculty. This year, returning students Thad Miller and Britt Crow-Miller are two of the new additions. Hidinger gets nostalgic thinking back to the school’s small beginnings, but she can’t wait to see what the future holds. “It’s exciting to watch things grow,” she said. “Some of the new people that have joined us recently and that will be joining us are doing interesting things and bringing fresh voices.”
SFIS is a complex machine that owes much of its success to Hidinger, who works behind the scenes to keep all the cogs in the machine oiled and moving. “When a faculty member gets a ‘harebrained’ idea,” she joked, “I’ve got to make sure we can find a way to make it – or something similar enough that it makes them happy – happen.” SFIS’s rapid growth presents other challenges. “It’s both exciting and frustrating,” Hidinger admitted. “Everyone is doing such interesting work, but as we expand, I have had to recognize that there’s no way I can be involved in everything.”
Part of Hidinger’s frustration arises from her natural confidence and desire to manage all the details herself. Fortunately, growth has allowed SFIS to assemble a quality support staff to help keep things moving. “Our staff are very dedicated,” Hidinger praised. “Everyone is invested in the success of the school.” The greater factor is her interest as a researcher, which has never diminished even after so many years as an administrator.
Hidinger has contributed research to some graduate student projects, even joining some student reading groups in the early years of CSPO. More significantly, she has been a part of the useable science initiatives championed by Sarewitz, leveraging her position on the steering committee of the Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable (SRR) to facilitate a research collaboration between that group and CSPO. The results of that partnership were published in Rangelands, a journal Hidinger has been editor of for seven years.
The expansion of CSPO and SFIS to include the new Institute for the Future of Innovation in Society (IFIS) brings new challenges and opportunities. This was also the first year the program will be operating under its own independent budget, having previously fallen under the umbrella of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Hidinger is learning the nuances of budgeting at the university level even as the addition of the Institute, not to mention the undergraduate program, takes shape. Hidinger, however, betrayed no sense of worry. “It just adds more cogs to the machine,” she said serenely.