Proposal for MIT Global Environment Initiative seeks public comment



As the world’s population continues to expand, our natural resources will become increasingly strained. In an effort to find sustainable solutions for the planet’s growing population while minimizing environmental impacts, MIT’s Environmental Research Council (ERC) has put forward a detailed implementation plan to establish a Global Environmental Initiative to complement the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).

The interdisciplinary, faculty-led council presented the plan to the MIT community last Thursday in a forum held at the Kirsch Auditorium in the Stata Center. Council members outlined an initiative that would bring together MIT’s “core strengths” across campus to help solve the world’s pressing environmental challenges, from mitigating climate change to curbing contamination and maintaining fresh water supplies.

“It’s impossible to imagine a problem bigger and more compelling, or more suited to the strengths of MIT, than how to drive toward global sustainability,” said MIT President Susan Hockfield in a video address to the forum. “Far too often the public conversation about the environment and climate gets mired in the discourse of blame and despair. Today, I believe MIT has an opportunity, and frankly an obligation, to help replace that stalemate with the momentum of creative, realistic, positive change.”

Once launched, the Global Environment Initiative is expected to focus on cultivating six key areas of academic research throughout MIT: climate, oceans, water, ecological resilience, contamination mitigation and sustainable societies.

Dara Entekhabi, professor of civil and environmental engineering and chair of the ERC, says that while many researchers at MIT are working in the research themes identified in the plan, often these efforts occur in isolation. For example, a biologist studying the health effects of contaminants could give valuable input to chemists designing new materials. Or a mechanical engineer designing a water purification facility may benefit from an urban planner’s perspective. The environmental initiative will aim to identify and bring together such related efforts, foster technological and social innovations in all six environmental research themes, and identify strategic directions for growth.

In the areas of climate and oceans, MIT already has a strong foundation of interdisciplinary collaboration. The Center for Global Change Science, the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, the Climate Modeling Initiative, and the recently launched Lorenz Center all focus on understanding the climate system and human contributions to that system. Similarly, in the area of ocean science, MIT has a long history of research and educational collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

Going forward, the Global Environment Initiative would work to strengthen these existing efforts and identify new research priorities. For example, in the climate arena, the plan proposes increasing work devoted to reducing uncertainty in climate predictions. In the case of oceanic studies, the initiative would boost efforts to harness the potential of new data collection and analysis technologies to monitor the impacts of human activity.

In addition to strengthening existing environmental programs, Entekhabi says the initiative will plant the seeds for new cross-campus collaborations in the areas of water, ecological resilience, contamination mitigation and sustainable societies. Thursday’s forum highlighted work already underway in labs throughout MIT in these key areas.

For example, researchers across multiple departments are tackling various challenges related to water, from engineering portable desalinators and water-purifying membranes to analyzing greenhouse gas emissions from water treatment plants and designing city sidewalks that direct rainwater to green spaces. In the area of ecological resilience, biologists and geneticists are studying the central role microbes play in regulating the global environment. In an effort to mitigate future environmental contamination, chemists and material scientists are investigating ways to create environmentally “benign-by-design” products. And economists, social scientists and urban planners are envisioning ways to make societies more sustainable by examining global food supply chains, designing “green” buildings, and evaluating sustainable transportation and urban designs.

One of the initiative’s first goals, once launched, will be securing funding for graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, as well as ignition grants, to foster innovative, cross-disciplinary research projects that would otherwise struggle to attract initial funding from traditional sources. The Earth Systems Initiative, which Entekhabi currently heads, has had an ignition grant program in place to support new, high-risk projects in earth sciences. This program will likely form the foundation for similar efforts under the new initiative.

The initiative also lays out a plan for creating educational programs. “Simply put,” the plan reads, “incorporating an understanding of the linkages between environmental quality and human welfare must become an essential part of MIT’s basic educational message.” In this spirit, the initiative will host workshops and symposia, and support the development of a new undergraduate minor in environment and sustainability.

In describing the Global Environmental Initiative’s broad goals during last Thursday’s forum, Entekhabi drew a comparison with the history of medicine. He noted that in the last few decades, the use of trial-and-error methods in medicine, such as exploratory surgery and empirical drug discovery, has largely been replaced by advanced medical imaging and targeted drug synthesis.

“What we need to do for the environment is what we’ve done for our health, and our advanced medical practice,” Entekhabi said. “We need to replace trial-and-error with rational design. And that requires understanding fundamentally how the system works, in the same way as understanding fundamentally how human health works.”

The implementation plan for the Global Environmental Initiative is available for public review and comment until Feb. 10, 2012.