MIT announces new initiative on environment

Multidisciplinary program, to be led by Susan Solomon, will encourage collaborations among researchers in different fields.

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MIT has announced a major new campuswide initiative to promote transformative, cross-disciplinary research relating to the environment.

The initiative will be formally launched in the fall, and its founding director will be Susan Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science. Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, stewarded the establishment of the new initiative, and expressed gratitude to Solomon for having agreed to serve as its first leader.

“Professor Solomon is one of the finest climate scientists in the world,” Zuber says. “Her service in the coming year will be of immense value to MIT, and to the world.” A search will be mounted for a permanent director to run the initiative after its first year.

A major component of the initiative will be the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), whose creation was announced this week; J-WAFS was established through a major gift from MIT alumnus Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel. Headed by John Lienhard, the Jameel Professor of Water and Food, the lab is intended to help humankind adapt to a rapidly rising population, a changing climate, and increasing urbanization and development. The lab will work toward environmentally benign, scalable solutions for water and food supply across a range of regional, social, and economic contexts. 

Regarding the environment initiative, Solomon says, “Our faculty, students, and staff have a deeply shared vision of being responsible stewards of the environment. This initiative will focus and amplify the aspirations of our community to understand, inform, and seek solutions to pressing problems of the natural world and built environment.”

This new initiative, she says, will promote research that engages wide participation by members of the MIT community to address the most significant interdisciplinary problems in our environment, spanning the physical and social sciences; engineering; and urban planning and policy.

“The goal of the initiative will be very specific: for faculty members to self-organize into teams of people who are interested in defining genuinely new research directions; to come up with ideas across schools; and to propose research that might not easily be funded by current federal agencies, which tend to be defined by disciplinary areas,” Solomon says. Such interdisciplinary research is recognized as a key way to bring about significant advances in technology and understanding.

Like the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), the new program is also expected to produce detailed, comprehensive studies in particular areas of concern — in this case, large-scale environmental issues. “Such studies by MIT would be welcomed on Capitol Hill,” Solomon says.

“One of the most important challenges of our time is the question of how to build a sustainable human society,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote in an email to the MIT community this morning. “The intense interest in this subject from our students and faculty reflects a shared sense of urgency and obligation. With Professor Solomon’s leadership, the environment initiative will help focus MIT’s distinctive strengths on advancing science, engineering, management, design and policy solutions to help drive the kind of progress required in time to make a difference.”

The initiative, which does not yet have a formal name, will start with funding for five years of operation, partly provided by MIT; after that it is expected to be self-sustaining, Solomon says. It will tie together research undertaken by many departments and centers at MIT, including, in addition to J-WAFS, the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; the Department of Urban Studies and Planning; the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; the Center for Global Change Science; and the Earth System Initiative, among others. Some themes of the new initiative will link closely with ongoing efforts in MITEI, particularly on climate change and water.

The search for the director was announced in February by Provost Martin Schmidt. The search committee, chaired by Professor Markus Buehler, included Professors Rob van der Hilst, Eran Ben-Joseph, JoAnne Yates, and Melissa Nobles. Professors Robert Armstrong and Vladimir Bulović also served on the committee; they were asked to help think through coordination with existing MIT initiatives. The committee worked with students to get their input.

The initiative will put out a call for initial interdisciplinary proposals this fall, Zuber says, adding: “We want new ideas. MIT can bring its special talents to bear to address global concerns, in the process drawing in people from across the campus.”

Additionally, a group consisting of Solomon, Zuber, Schmidt, and Armstrong (who serves as director of MITEI) will lead a series of conversations around campus on how MIT should engage to address the issue of climate change. This activity will include a series of lectures by prominent speakers representing a diverse set of perspectives.

The initiative will place a high priority on engaging the many students whose interests center on the environment and sustainability issues, Solomon says.

“There are a lot of opportunities for synergies,” she continues. “The initiative will take advantage of the traditionally open atmosphere at MIT, which fosters interactions among people working in very different fields of study. That spirit of collaboration, and the possibilities it unleashes, are very powerful.”