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MIT creates Environmental Research Council

Sets stage for Institute environment initiative

MIT has announced the launch of the Environmental Research Council to elevate and expand the Institute's leadership in this critical area of study.

MIT President Susan Hockfield told the community at the recent State of the Institute Forum that the council will draw together the significant environmental work already under way in many different labs and departments to enhance their combined efforts. The goal is to create a robust Institute-wide collaboration comparable to the MIT Energy Initiative.

"The world faces increasingly urgent environmental challenges, deeply intertwined with equally complex and pressing problems in energy. Given the caliber and depth of MIT's intellectual resources on these topics, we have an obligation to lead the way in developing solutions," Hockfield said.

The council emerges directly from the recommendations of a special committee chaired by Maria Zuber, the E A Griswold Professor of Geophysics and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. The committee assessed the Institute's research and teaching activities related to the environment and recommended that MIT launch a research initiative focused on the development of new insights into Earth's natural systems to support science, technology, design, policy, and management of interventions that advance environmental sustainability.

Dara Entekhabi, the Bacardi and Stockholm Water Foundations Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Earth Systems Initiative (ESI), will serve as chair of the council. The council will engage faculty in all of MIT's five schools, particularly those in departmental programs focused on environmental research and education, and will consult with the MIT Energy Initiative on important areas of interface, including educational programs. The council's first task will be to develop a proposal, expected by February 15, 2009, for an Institute-wide Environmental Initiative.

"The main goal of such an initiative would be to understand how the Earth system works, so that we can approach sustaining life on Earth in a rational way," Entekhabi said. He compared such a strategy to the way the development of pharmaceuticals has evolved from trial-and-error to a rational design system that begins by targeting the exact biochemical pathway to be treated.

"We need to treat the Earth system in the same way," he said.

In addition to Entekhabi, the council is comprised of Sallie (Penny) Chisholm, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology in CEE; Michael Greenstone, the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics; Judith Layzer, the Edward H and Joyce Linde Career Development Associate Professor of Environmental Policy, in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning; John C. Marshall, professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences in EAPS and director of the Climate Modeling Initiative; Dianne K. Newman, the John & Dorothy Wilson Professor of Biology and Geobiology, Departments of Biology and EAPS; Daniel G. Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy in the Department of Chemistry; Martin F. Polz, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Ronald G. Prinn, TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry in EAPS; Daniel H. Rothman, professor of geophysics in EAPS; John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management Science in the MIT-Sloan School of Management and director of the System Dynamics Group; J. Phillip Thompson, associate professor of urban politics and community development in DUSP; and James Wescoat, the Aga Khan Professor of Architecture.

"The recommendations in the Zuber committee report point out the breadth of interdisciplinary activities that already exist across all five schools," said MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif. "The council will help frame and advance a focused research program that builds on the core strengths identified by the Zuber report and that will lead us to the frontier of important new opportunities for discovery."

MIT has robust research programs in a number of inter-related areas -- for example, water, climate change, and energy -- each with compelling leadership and considerable momentum. The Environmental Research Council is charged with consulting and engaging faculty in all complementary areas so synergies can be achieved, duplication avoided, and environmental goals maximized.

Chancellor Phillip Clay said the council includes faculty from more than a half dozen departments, highlighting the tremendous impact MIT research can have on addressing a wide array of environmental problems -- and engaging a broad segment of students.

The council will also engage various student organizations interested in the environment, both from the point of view of education and research. "The research generated by this initiative will greatly reinforce our educational programs," Clay said. "Students in every department are interested in the environment, and will welcome a robust research program that connects their passions to their education."

The Zuber committee report, "Creating a Sustainable Earth: An MIT Research, Teaching, and Public Service Initiative for Understanding, Restoring and Managing the Environment," is available online as a PDF.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 8, 2008 (download PDF).

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