SAFES integrates agriculturally and environmentally related disciplines to develop holistic approaches for tackling "wicked" challenges.

Credit: Adobe Stock

Credit: Adobe Stock

Programmatic Domains

Achieving agricultural, food, economic, and ecosystem sustainability amid changing political, economic, and environmental climates is inherently a multi-system problem that can be a moving target. The science of agricultural sustainability for landscape-level challenges will require a multi-disciplinary and multi-scale approach involving innovations in integrated modeling, data science, and visualization. 

SAFES establishes an infrastructure of four programmatic domains to address key challenges that impact society within the interconnected contexts of agriculture, food, watersheds, natural resources, the economy, and urban/rural interfaces. These domains of expertise are the scaffold that support the establishment and endurance of areas of expertise, fortifying the University's capacity to effectively respond and provide solutions to emergent issues such as disruption, resilience, regeneration, biodiversity, optimizing ecosystems services, and innovative stakeholder engagement, among others.


The data domain will create a capacity of expertise in the theory and methods of data acquisition and analysis. This domain will identify data sources that should be available to researchers at Penn State and work to make these resources easily accessible to the Penn State research community. The data domain will also identify and develop state of the art techniques to collect original data (sensor technology) and mine data (machine learning or artificial intelligence) for important new insights relevant to multisystem dynamics and landscape scale interactions.  


The models domain will create a capacity of expertise in coupling and translating information across biophysical and socioeconomic models. This framework builds on strengths at Penn State in the development and use of computational models and tools for research and expands this expertise to integrate across models and collaborate across modeling teams and platforms. The model domain will focus on building data and computational tools to help facilitate coupling and translation across individual models.


The discovery domain will create a capacity of expertise in making acquired data and interoperable models accessible to academic and non-academic audiences within and beyond the university. This domain builds strength in specialized translations (visual, technical, verbal, etc.) that can effectively communicate the knowledge and thus extend the societal benefits of the research, evaluation of new technologies, and design of communications around policy options and business management solutions. The discovery domain builds on a strong and unique tradition in the college for “use- and need-inspired" research. The discovery domain will be a “switchboard" for connecting researchers to resources and building synergies across the University to leverage talent and skill within and especially beyond the college.

Landscape-Level Interactions

The landscape-scale interactions domain will build a capacity of expertise in understanding how interactions occur across scales, which is critical to improving our predictability of how a system at one spatial scale will be influenced by an impact occurring at a different spatial scale. This framework may be understood as a cross-cutting research domain that will address fundamental challenges most modelers and data scientists face when attempting to understand multisystem dynamics; namely, how are the different components in the system integrated, and importantly how do these dynamics interact across different landscape scales. 

SAFES Critical Issue Initiatives

Agricultural Sustainability in Urbanized Landscapes

Advancing knowledge and practice on economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable agricultural systems in urbanized landscapes.

Bioeconomy Solutions

Developing sustainable bioeconomy solutions to generate carbon negative biochemicals, biomaterials, bioenergy, and food products.

Contaminants of Emerging Concern

Understanding the complex nature and consequences of water contaminants and providing critical data to empower effective and time-critical solutions.

Food Choice and Health

Addressing interconnected problems surrounding food choice, food waste, human health, and the environmental impacts of these systems.

Managing Earth's Critical Zone

Translating Critical Zone research into actionable management practices.

Precision Biodiversity

Working to understand the complex factors underpinning biodiversity declines and creating tools to improve biodiversity outcomes.

Regenerative and Climate-Smart Landscapes

Harnessing the potential for agricultural technology and systems design to ensure resilience at the landscape-level.

Resilient Coupled Human-Earth Systems

Working to build a next-generation, integrated suite of models and analytic tools to understand the interdependent stressors, impacts, adaptations, and vulnerabilities of global and regional change.

Stakeholder Engagement Science and Practice

Working to understand and improve collaborative governance effectiveness, outcomes, and impacts in order to create more equitable and sustainable systems to manage natural resources.

Transformative Water Quality Strategies

Transforming the impact and effectiveness of responses to “hot spots” and “hot moments” of water contamination.

SAFES Communities of Practice

SAFES is exploring a new framework that will allow researchers in the digital agriculture realm to connect with others based on expertise, skillsets and resources.

Plant pathologist receives grant to develop disease management tools for wheat

Paul Esker, a plant pathologist in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, has received a $455,000 grant from the U.S Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to support a five-year integrated research and extension project designed to improve management recommendations for wheat.

Grant will support expanded use of artificial intelligence for crop health

A research team developing artificial-intelligence-based solutions for diagnosing and managing threats to crop health has received a grant to expand the technology to assist more smallholder farmers around the world.

Novel cutting mechanism devised for automated, robotic apple-tree pruning system

The first robotic cutting mechanism — or “end-effector” — for a fully automated, computerized pruning system for modern apple orchards has been designed by a Penn State research team, an early step in the creation of a technology aimed at easing challenges facing tree-fruit growers.

USDA grant to support expansion of online tool for pollinator conservation

A Penn State-led research team has received a nearly $950,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to create the next generation of an online decision-support tool designed to help conserve pollinator populations across the United States.

Researchers develop prototype of robotic device to pick, trim button mushrooms

Researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences have developed a robotic mechanism for mushroom picking and trimming and demonstrated its effectiveness for the automated harvesting of button mushrooms.

More precise nitrogen recommendations for corn to help farmers, cut pollution

Researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences have developed an important component of a new system that corn growers can use to adjust nitrogen fertilizer applications based on site-specific measurements of cover crops and soil organic matter.

Next best thing: Virtual reality aids learning in College of Ag Sciences classes

In early 2020, Adrian Barragan was wrestling with how to incorporate farm trips into the new spring course on ruminant herd health management he was leading at Penn State.

Internet-based precision irrigation system shows promise for fresh-market tomato

An “internet of things” — or IoT — system monitoring real-time data from soil-based sensors to activate an automated precision irrigation setup can conserve water and boost crop production, according to a team of Penn State researchers.

Penn State-developed genome-editing technology licensed to Inscripta

A technology patented by a Penn State researcher to enhance the capabilities of the genome-editing tool known as CRISPR/Cas will have potential commercial applications as the result of a recently signed licensing agreement.

Plant pathologist at Penn State to aid NASA study on pathogen dispersal

A plant pathologist in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences is supporting a multi-institutional research project designed to help track the spread of a plant pathogen.

Novel lighting system designed for machine vision module of agricultural robots

A novel camera system using active lighting devised by Penn State researchers may be a crucial step in developing machine vision systems that allow robotic devices to more clearly "see" the agricultural targets with which they will react.

Simulating Adaptive Responses

Machine learning helps prepare necessary adaptations to warming conditions for farmers and supply chains.

Identifying Stressors’ Impacts

Assessment details impact of pests and pathogens on the world’s major food crops.

SAFES Seed Grant Competitions

SAFES Workshop Series

The SAFES Institute will host a semi-regular seminar series that supports faculty researchers and administrators in expanding their knowledge of external funding opportunities and internal Penn State programs that can support new interdisciplinary research collaborations. For questions, please email