Opinion guest column

MIT Divest’s response to the Climate Grand Challenges

Climate change will not wait for research proposals; MIT must act now

On July 23, President Reif announced the start of the Climate Grand Challenges, what he described as an “important step in MIT’s ongoing efforts to take action against climate change.” The challenge invites tenured faculty to submit research proposals for “large scale change.” MIT will pick five to six of these projects and secure funding for them. However, MIT’s emphasis on “applying cutting edge technologies” to the climate crisis is insufficient.

Climate change is a current crisis, and a year-long process of submitting research proposals does not match the time frame in which we are already seeing the impacts of ecological destruction. Our planet and its people require immediate action and unique solutions that interrupt the status quo. As a powerful institution with intelligent and determined community members, we can do better than rely on future research. We must act, and we must make bold institutional changes to meet the climate crisis rather than sticking to our usual paradigms.

There is no doubt in MIT’s ability to produce technological and scientific advancements for society. However, MIT also has economic and societal power as a renowned institution with a large endowment, as well as a continuous presence in Washington D.C. It is time MIT make use of these resources and privileges to help solve the biggest interdisciplinary problem of our generation instead of claiming that climate change can be fixed with enough research funding. 

A key pitfall of the Grand Challenges is a review committee lacking an emphasis on the social, political, economic, and ethical dimensions of climate change. After PIs write Phase I Letters of Interest about solving climate problems, their submissions are examined by a Faculty Review Committee. The Committee then selects some PIs to further develop their ideas in white papers with up to $100,000 funding in Phase II.

The Faculty Review Committee plays a significant role in selecting feasible and necessary solutions. Although the Committee includes faculty from all five schools and the Schwarzman College of Computing, the majority are from the Schools of Science and Engineering. Of the 26 members, only three are from the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and two are from the School of Architecture + Planning. In contrast, 12 faculty members are affiliated with the School of Engineering. This imbalance prevents selection of the most robust and equitable solutions in the Phase I review process.

During Phase II, white papers are reviewed by researchers and leaders in the sciences, humanities, public policy, management, and more. While we appreciate the diversity of expertise at this stage in the process, we believe a crucial voice is missing: frontline climate activists and at-risk communities. Particularly for climate adaptation projects, an accurate assessment of community needs is necessary. We believe this cannot take place when feedback on PIs’ ideas is limited to the academic, commercial, and policy elite.

If MIT is staking our future on technology, we must make sure any innovations are equitable, inclusive, and socially sound. Because of the importance of selecting the best submitted ideas, we demand a more even division among different schools in the Faculty Review Committee. More importantly, we demand the inclusion of those directly impacted by climate change in the white paper review process.

The Climate Grand Challenges expects the development and selection of projects to be complete by July 2021, almost a year from now. From there, the Grand Challenges projects will be supported for several years. Climate change is not a crisis that will wait several years. Long-term investments into mitigation and adaptation are valuable, but not at the expense of immediate action.

Our community has watched as raging fires burn through California, Oregon, and Washington at unprecedented scales. Heavy rainfalls causing flooding and landslides have recently taken lives in Nepal, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The scientific community understands that extreme weather events are directly related to climate change and will only worsen as we continue to operate on a fossil fuel-based energy economy. Climate change will not wait for the Climate Grand Challenges projects to be completed in five years. MIT needs to establish itself as a leader in climate action today

Long-term research must be combined with immediate advocacy for effective climate solutions. If MIT will continue focusing on research, it must do so as community-driven as possible. In Phases I and II of the challenge, MIT needs to balance the review committees to put less emphasis on technology and include the voices of those most affected by the climate crisis.

The authors of this article are members of MIT Divest:
Paige Vincent ’22 is an undergraduate in Materials Science and Engineering.
Meital Hoffman ’20 is an alumna in Urban Studies and Planning.
Sahithi Madireddy ’23 is an undergraduate in Biology.
Jess Cohen ’22 is an undergraduate in Physics.