DRI’s History

A 60-year history of impact and innovation across Nevada and around the world.

In 1959, the Nevada State Legislature passed NRS396.7951, creating a division of the University of Nevada specifically devoted to conducting research.

From this, a small group of farsighted scientists, academic leaders, and entrepreneurs created the Desert Research Institute, a unique organization that combined the classic academic tradition of high quality basic research with the productive focus of applied interdisciplinary research. DRI became an autonomous division of the University of Nevada System (now called the Nevada System of Higher Education), on equal footing with its two educational campuses, in 1969. Before that, it functioned as a research division of what is now the system’s northern university campus.

Through its studies to understand basic environmental processes, DRI also has served its earliest mission—the management and understanding of Nevada’s arid land resources. DRI also has proven to be extremely responsive to the world’s changing priorities. It has shifted the emphasis of much of its research to address environmental issues on a global scale and conducts studies on every continent in the world.

DRI’s research calls on the expertise and methods of scientists from multiple scientific disciplines. DRI’s highly skilled researchers are able to collaboratively apply their expertise toward effectively solving multi-faceted scientific questions, and this collective approach to research has helped make DRI successful in producing research of the highest quality and in competing for research funding.

1959 – 1968

DRI NSF Lake Tahoe Lab 1964


The Nevada State Legislature passed NRS396.7951, creating a division of the University of Nevada system specifically devoted to conducting research. From this legislative action, a small group of farsighted scientists created the Desert Research Institute.


DRI began groundwater studies to support the Atomic Energy Commission’s (now the Department of Energy) underground nuclear tests at locations in Nevada and across the United States, leading to decades of research providing valuable insight into groundwater systems and migration of radionuclides.

1961 DRI began groundwater studies for the AEC


Dr. Frits Went, head of DRI’s Laboratory of Desert Biology, designed the first greenhouses in Nevada capable of conducting climate-controlled experiments. These structures, known as phytotrons, were precursors to the eco-cells now in the Gallagher Great Basin Environmental Research Laboratory on DRI’s Reno campus.

Dr. Frits Went


Dr. William Douglass directed the DRI Basque Studies Program, the only such program in the United States. DRI’s Basque projects would eventually be assimilated into the Basque Studies Program at the University of Nevada, Reno, but DRI is proud to have established Nevada’s unique Basque Studies program and to have contributed to the preservation of Basque culture and history.

1969 – 1978

aerial view of DRI Reno campus


DRI became an autonomous branch of what was then the University of Nevada System. Today, DRI is one of eight independent institutions in the Nevada System of Higher Education.


DRI participated in the first Greenland Ice Sheet Project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which aimed to collect a continuous core of Greenland ice and study it for clues about Earth’s past climate. DRI continued work in this project throughout the 80s and 90s and has since become a world leader in ice core research and analysis.

researchers standing by snow sled in Greenland


Drought conditions prompted Governor Mike O’Callaghan to authorize the first Emergency Cloud Seeding Project, led by DRI. This project leveraged DRI’s years of research in cloud seeding and has since evolved into the State of Nevada Cloud Seeding Project which seeds Nevada watersheds every winter to enhance snowpack.

cloud seeding machine


DRI began cultural resources management for the Department of Energy in the area now known as the Nevada National Security Site. This landscape holds a range of cultural resources from the earliest known prehistoric societies in North America circa 13,000 years ago to historic times, including Native American occupations, early Euro-American exploration, mining booms, ranching, and Cold War-era nuclear testing.

Nevada National Security site

1979 – 1988

weather station


DRI became home to the Western Regional Climate Center, one of six such centers run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The WRCC stores climate and weather data, coordinates climate services across 11 Western states, and conducts applied research on weather and climate topics.


DRI scientists pioneered the use of chemical fingerprinting, a technique to identify the relative contributions of different pollutants to overall pollution mass and the movement of pollutants to their eventual points of impact. This work has become the basis of air quality management in Nevada’s urban areas and has been applied to mitigate haze in some of the world’s most scenic places like the Rocky Mountains.

View from DRI's mountaintop facility in Steamboat Springs Colorado


DRI archaeologist Alan Simmons, Ph.D., made the cover of Science magazine for his work at the site of Ain Ghazal in Jordan. His team’s excavation at this site, which dates back to the Neolithic period, helped shed light on early peoples’ adoption of domestic plants and animals as primary subsistence sources.

cover of Science magazine


DRI presented the first ever Nevada Medal, an annual national award designed to enhance Nevada’s prestige in the scientific community and recognize outstanding scientific achievement. The first Nevada Medalist was Verner E. Suomi, Ph.D., the father of satellite meteorology.

First Nevada Medalist, Verner-E-Suomi

1989 – 1998

DRI Las Vegas campus


DRI’s Las Vegas faculty moved into the Southern Nevada Science Center, the first facility in the city designed specifically for scientific research.


DRI became one of only a handful of institutions in the country equipped with luminescence dating capabilities, which allow researchers to determine the ages of materials too old for carbon dating and learn about past climate shifts, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. This work continues at DRI in what is now the E.L. Cord Luminescence Lab.

woman looking at rock wall


DRI scientists successfully used satellite-based and airborne remote sensing to find suitable drinking water wells for communities in Ghana, improving water supplies and reducing the exposure to water-borne diseases.

Remote Sensing, Ghana Water Sampling


DRI launched the Science Box Traveling Kits Program, which provided portable instruction modules to Nevada educators. These kits, now called Green Boxes, have become ubiquitous in Nevada schools, reaching more than 23,000 Nevada students annually.

Science Alive Green Boxes

1999 – 2008

CEMP station


DRI took over technical operations of the DOE-funded Community Environmental Monitoring Program after participating in the program since 1981, running a network of monitoring stations located in communities surrounding and downwind of the Nevada National Security Site. The CEMP is still active today: a strong contingent of local citizens continues to work with DRI scientists to maintain the stations and educate the community


DRI scientists began demonstrating the effectiveness of “TRAKER”—a vehicle outfitted with state of the art air sampling equipment—to urban air quality officials. This new technology, invented by DRI researchers, allowed resource managers to pinpoint sources of dust pollution and target key areas with dust abatement efforts in rapidly growing Las Vegas, improving the city’s air quality.

yellow TRAKER van


DRI researchers successfully used wildlife detection dogs to track and locate threatened desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert to allow for improved monitoring and protection of the population. (Image credit: Kurt Moses/NPS.)

desert tortoise


DRI air quality experts collaborated with Chinese researchers to help preserve the Terra Cotta army, artifacts dating from 221 BC from the Qin Dynasty that were deteriorating due to poor air quality.

Judy Chow looking at Terra Cotta soldier

2009 – 2018

DRI boat in Lake Tahoe


A team of scientists led by DRI completed a multi-year project to evaluate the nearshore ecology of Lake Tahoe, forging a coordinated monitoring and evaluation effort between scientists and resource managers across the Tahoe Basin.


In collaboration with the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum, DRI launched Science Distilled, a lecture series that makes cutting-edge research approachable and provides community members with an opportunity to talk with local scientists. The series features six talks annually, on topics ranging from cybersecurity to the ecology of snow.

Science Distilled lecture


The Desert Research Corporation, the commercialization arm of DRI, successfully raised venture capital funding for Tu Biomics Inc. In conjunction with DRI’s soil and molecular biology scientists, Tu Biomics is driving the development of organic antifungal chemicals as a cost-effective alternative to currently available options.



Using ice core records, DRI researchers identified a connection between lead pollution and the rise and fall of ancient economies like the Roman Empire. Their findings were listed among the top 100 science stories of the year by Discover magazine.

researcher holding an ice core