Institute announces new environmental initiative

Unnamed program to fund interdisciplinary research will be headed by Susan Solomon

MIT announced Thursday a new initiative on the environment meant to “promote transformative, cross-disciplinary research,” according to a press release.

The initiative, which still doesn’t have an official name, is intended to connect research from 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 other departments and programs, according to MIT.

In an email to the MIT community Thursday, President L. Rafael Reif said The Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), announced Tuesday, would also be a “major component” of the initiative.

The release said the new initiative would also “link closely” with parts of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), which was established in 2006.

Reif’s email also said that Susan Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science would be the first director of the program.

According to MIT’s press release, Solomon will be the director only for the first year of the project before returning to research and teaching; a search committee will be formed immediately to find a permanent director to lead what Reif called the program’s “mature second stage.”

Funding for the first five years of the program’s operation will be provided in part by MIT according to the release, but after that it is expected to be “self-sustaining.”

In an email to The Tech, MIT Vice President for Research Maria T. Zuber said, “For the environment, while we may anticipate some industry interest, we expect a broader funding portfolio that also includes foundations, private individuals and government. The very generous gift by Mr. Jameel to support research on water and food announced earlier this week is a great example of the kind of support we hope to attract.”

According to the release, the initial call for proposals for interdisciplinary research will go out in the fall. When asked whether the initiative would provide funding for any existing research, Zuber said, “MIT undertakes initiatives to inspire genuinely new ideas and the initiative on the environment will be no exception.” She also emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of the new initiative.

According to Zuber, “There are already many faculty either already working on or interested in the initiative and so we have no plans to bring on new faculty researchers.” She said, however, that the next director after Solomon could be an “internal or external appointment.”

Regarding faculty involvement, Zuber said, “various studies of different aspects of the environment that have been undertaken over the past decade identified over a hundred faculty who could potentially be interested, and that is what we found by knocking on doors and circulating some email. With today’s announcement to the community by our President I have little doubt that more will emerge.”

According to Reif’s email, Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88, Zuber, and MITEI Director Robert C. Armstrong will “launch a campus-wide conversation on the challenge of climate change.” In his email Reif said, “Built around a range of provocative speakers, such an open conversation will sharpen our thinking and help us choose the best path to real progress against climate change.”

Of the program’s relation to undergraduate education, Zuber said, “[T]here has been a census of possibly relevant courses that already exist and there are many. The challenge will be to develop a coherent and modern curriculum, which could logically consist of some existing courses and some that have yet to be developed.”