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.

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, Vision, and Core Values


We build partnerships to synergize and sustain excellence in the interdisciplinary research, teaching, and service that make the University of Wisconsin-Madison a world leader in addressing environmental challenges.


We create sustainable communities across complex institutional landscapes for enhancing the quality of life and the environment in Wisconsin and the world.

Core Values

  • The Nelson Institute facilitates and promotes interdisciplinary scholarship that aims to understand and address societal problems related to the environment and sustainability.
  • We value and are committed to providing a liberal arts and professional education, built on the premise that complex environmental issues can best be understood through familiarity with diverse perspectives, and integration of the biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities.
  • We are committed to fostering and sustaining community partnerships in research, teaching, service, and outreach at the local to international levels.
  • We act as a catalyst and model for interdisciplinary collaboration on environmental initiatives across departments, schools, and colleges, and governmental, private, and nonprofit entities.

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.