About Us

The world is changing at a rate and scale unprecedented in human history. How can we meet humanity’s needs in just and innovative ways while protecting the environment on which life depends?

The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies is confronting this challenge through imaginative research that transcends disciplinary boundaries; through hands-on educational initiatives that bridge classrooms and communities; and through public programs that foster environmental conversations among people from business, government, academia and advocacy.

The Nelson Institute is home to four interdisciplinary research centers that serve as laboratories and incubators for solutions to the world’s most critical environmental challenges.

  • The Center for Climatic Research explores the past, present and future of the Earth’s climate system and is a world leader in studies of climate history, ocean-atmosphere-biosphere interactions, and future climate at local, regional and global scales.
  • The Center for Culture, History and Environment investigates environmental and cultural change in the full sweep of human history and explores how this knowledge can inform our relationship with the environment today and in the future.
  • The Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment examines connections between natural resources, technology, policy, human health, security in the rapidly changing global environment.
  • The Center for Ecology and the Environment fosters research, instruction, and outreach among ecologists at UW–Madison and beyond.

We also have many partnerships in education, research and community service that promote a more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable world. We are committed to advancing environmental stewardship and social justice through the coordination of  activities and events that focus on environmental and racial justice, decolonizing relationships with Native communities, and diversifying the constituency for environmental issues and action

In addition, the Nelson Institute offers educational opportunities for undergraduates through a major or certificate in environmental studies, a certificate in sustainability, and the Community Environmental Scholars Program. Graduate students can pursue degrees in environmental conservation, environmental observation and informatics, environment and resources, or water resources management; and certificates in energy analysis and policy or culture, history, and environment.

The Nelson Institute’s interdisciplinary education and research is helping to solve today’s most challenging environmental issues and train tomorrow’s leaders and innovators, but it is built upon a powerful historical legacy. The institute was established in 1970 and renamed in 2002 for former Wisconsin governor and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, the author of landmark environmental legislation and the founder of Earth Day. His commitment to environmental protection and social justice inspire our work — more critical now than ever before on a rapidly changing planet.

Mission and Vision


The Nelson Institute advances education, research, decision-making, and public engagement. We foster the next generation of leaders in sustainability and engage in scholarship to protect and preserve the environment. We are an interdisciplinary community of knowledge and practice: artists and engineers, historians and chemists, sociologists and climate scientists, ecologists and hydrologists.


We will be leaders in helping stem the tide of global species extinction, reversing runaway climate change, and adapting to a changing planet. We will address these challenges by bringing justice, equity, and inclusivity to the forefront of environmental problem-solving.

Learn more about our mission, vision, and values in our strategic plan

Land Acknowledgement

The University of Wisconsin-Madison occupies ancestral Ho-Chunk land, a place their nation has called Teejop (day-JOPE) since time immemorial. In an 1832 treaty, the Ho-Chunk were forced to cede this territory. Decades of ethnic cleansing followed when both the federal and state government repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, sought to forcibly remove the Ho-Chunk from Wisconsin.

The Nelson Institute acknowledges the circumstances that led to the forced removal of the Ho-Chunk people, and honor their legacy of resistance and resilience. This history of colonization informs our work and vision for a collaborative future. We recognize and respect the inherent sovereignty of the Ho-Chunk Nation and the other 11 Native Nations within the boundaries of the state of Wisconsin.