PULLMAN, Wash. — With the support of a $4 million federal grant to the Inland Northwest Research Alliance, Washington State University will be among a group of universities developing a new collaborative doctorate education and research program, the Subsurface Science Research Institute.

Building upon the successful National Science Foundation funded Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training grant, which supports more than 35 graduate students at WSU, the institute will provide an interdisciplinary and multi-institutional approach to subsurface science. Subsurface science is the study of the processes that occur in the uppermost part of the earth’s crust.

Students will receive doctorate degrees from established disciplines such as chemistry, chemical engineering, microbiology, environmental engineering, geology or soil science, while interacting with colleagues from the other alliance institutions and participating in a program of cross-cutting coursework. Through the institute, students also will be able to enroll in a variety of specialized courses from the various institutions, using state-of-the-art distance education technology.

“This institute will enhance our training of the next generation of engineers and scientists, helping us to provide them with tools to tackle the difficult environmental management and restoration issues of contaminated sites, especially in the West,” said Jim Petersen, associate dean of research/graduate programs in the College of Engineering and Architecture.

The alliance’s eight member universities help set direction for scientific research in contaminant cleanup performed at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. The alliance is a partner with Bechtel and BWXT in the management of this laboratory. Many of the Department of Energy’s production facilities are located in the Western states and have had significant adverse effects on the environment, particularly in regards to underground leakage of contaminants.

“Better understanding of how these contaminants flow below the surface is a key mission of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory,’’ said Gautam Pillay, executive director of the alliance.

The program means that students will be able to earn a doctorate while collaborating with participating universities and the laboratory. Students will be able to take graduate-level courses from participating universities. They will also have access to equipment at the laboratory, including the Subsurface Geosciences Laboratory, a new $150 million laboratory planned to house subsurface science research in Idaho Falls by 2007.

The interdisciplinary nature of the program will allow students to develop understanding and expertise in several areas of study that are interrelated at the subsurface level but have traditionally been studied in isolation, ranging from biological processes to geochemical reactions to the physics of fluid flow.

“Through this collaboration, our faculty and students will have access to a much broader array of faculty, cutting-edge research and state-of-the-art laboratory facilities,’’ said Karen DePauw, dean of the WSU graduate school. “We look forward to having the high-quality Ph.D. students that will benefit from this.’’

Principal congressional support for the grant came from Washington State Senator Patty Murray.

The alliance institutions include WSU, Boise State, Idaho State, University of Idaho, Montana State, University of Montana, Utah State and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.