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October 8, 2021 | Guest Author

Khara Grieger, NC State assistant professor and extension specialist


Fertilizer overuse is leading to algal blooms, fishkills and other environmental issues as rain carries excess phosphorus into our lakes and waterways. At the same time, our world’s mineable phosphorus supply is dwindling, potentially leading to worldwide economic and political instability in the not-too-distant future.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers across NC State and partner universities will address both ends of these issues through a new $25 million NSF-funded Science and Technologies for Phosphorus Sustainability (STEPS) Center headquartered at NC State. The center is anchored by an ambitious “25-in-25” goal, which calls for a 25% reduction in phosphate loss and a 25% reduction in phosphorus dependence over the next 25 years.

Enter Khara Grieger, NC State assistant professor and extension specialist in environmental health and risk assessment in the Department of Applied Ecology. She will co-lead a knowledge transfer team to reach those goals by building a strong line of two-way communication between STEPS Center researchers, external stakeholders, and community members who can help make these goals a reality.

“There’s a growing recognition that we need to innovate better – and in a way that takes into account societal perceptions and needs,” Grieger said. “Knowledge Transfer helps ensure the responsible innovation of new technologies and materials by factoring in stakeholder perspectives within early innovation stages. We will apply this thinking to STEPS.”

By leveraging her expertise in risk analysis and the broader field of risk governance, Grieger and her team will help STEPS researchers and stakeholders create phosphorus management solutions together.

“Most of my research has focused on understanding the potential risks and impacts of new materials and technologies on health, society, and the environment,” Grieger said. “My involvement with Knowledge Transfer is an extension of this work: to support the development of responsible innovations, technologies and materials that incorporate stakeholder perceptions and needs as early as possible in the process.”

Grieger and STEPS Knowledge Transfer group co-leader Matt Scholz, Senior Project Manager at Arizona State University’s Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance, will reach stakeholders through five key avenues: community groups, technical working groups, state agriculture extension services, the Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance, and “triple bottom line” research sites, which investigate phosphorus sustainability from more than an environmental and health, perspective, but societal and techno-economic perspectives as well.

Laying the Foundations for Sustainable Solutions

With help from Scholz, University of Illinois Associate Professor Anna-Maria Marshall, NC State postdoctoral researcher Ashton Merck, and extension channels, Grieger will reach out to key phosphorus stakeholders in order to find the barriers and incentives for promoting sustainable phosphorus management, using interviews, meetings, surveys, training sessions for researchers, and other means of capturing information.

Grieger says that exploring more virtual communications options with stakeholders during the pandemic has shed light on new opportunities.

“While we have faced many challenges during the past 18 months, the COVID pandemic has also presented new opportunities,” said Grieger. “For example, we realized that we can reduce our environmental impacts by cutting out non-essential business travel while also being able to reach and include a wider group of stakeholders.”

Grieger will share this stakeholder research and information with STEPS researchers, in a process that transfers knowledge from external stakeholders and actors back to the research team. The process will help STEPS researchers learn key stakeholder perceptions and concerns, if any, as they develop new technologies for phosphorus capture across a diverse range of sectors.

“Overall, through multi-directional flows of information, knowledge transfer will help guide and prioritize STEPS’ research. It will help ensure we’re meeting stakeholders’ research needs and that we’re conducting research in ways that are acceptable to them,” Grieger said.

“By engaging with stakeholders early to understand their risk perceptions and concerns about novel technology, we can foster a more inclusive R&D process while also understanding and  then responding to stakeholder needs and concerns.”

After the first year and also as part of these knowledge transfer efforts, Grieger and her team plan to lead risk screening efforts for potential materials and technologies either used or developed through STEPS’ research and engineering teams.

“By doing some upfront evaluation of environmental, health, and safety risks of our materials and technologies, we can better anticipate potential risks or problems early in the research process,” said Grieger. “Through this work, we can avoid potential issues down the road with the adoption of newly-developed technological solutions, for example, or even avoid unintended environmental issues.”

Bridging Knowledge Between Researchers and Stakeholders

Grieger and her colleagues will use traditional and non-traditional means for sharing the STEPS research team’s research results, recommendations, technologies, and materials.

“We have carved out a number of mechanisms for bringing our research to stakeholders as new technologies, materials, and results are released,” said Grieger. “These include webinars, conferences, workshops, extension-related events like field days, the STEPS website, and other hosted events.”

Grieger says her team will also foster communication through technical working groups, which pair STEPS researchers with external stakeholders selected from the STEPS team’s larger Stakeholder Community Group.

“I’m excited about these working groups,” said Grieger. “These are meant to build on the close connections we’ve made with stakeholders while gathering their thoughts, concerns, and insights.”

Leveraging the N.C. Plant Sciences Initiative for Global Impact

The efforts of Grieger and other STEPS Center researchers are part of a much larger effort at NC State called the N.C. Plant Sciences initiative (N.C. PSI), a massive research effort that brings together some of the top minds in academia, government and industry, driving new research and innovations that will solve some of the world’s grandest issues in agriculture, including the environmental and sustainability issues surrounding phosphorus.

The STEPS Center and N.C. PSI will both be headquartered in the soon-to-be-completed NC State University Plant Sciences Building, which houses 100,000 gross square feet of laboratory and greenhouse space, three core labs with some of the world’s most advanced equipment, a high-speed data network, and a staff of experts and specialists running it all.

Being aligned with the N.C. PSI gives Grieger and her STEPS Center colleagues access to an even larger interdisciplinary network of resources and expertise, which includes additional equipment in the Plant Sciences Building, NC State’s 18 research stations across North Carolina, and potential new collaborators in academia, government, and industry.

“There’s a lot of value in bringing together stakeholders and researchers to solve large problems,” said Ross Sozzani, co-Deputy Director of the NSF STEPS Center grant and Plant Improvement Platform Director of the N.C. PSI. “This level of bi-directional cooperation facilitated by Dr. Grieger, along with the many added resources at the STEPS Center’s disposal through the N.C. PSI, will help ensure we achieve our ambitious 25-in-25 goals.”

Thanks to Postdoctoral Fellow Ashton Merck, who helped with the reporting and writing of this article, which originally appeared in NC State CALS News at

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