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MIT, Portuguese government strengthen joint research agenda

MIT hosted a visit this week by Portuguese government officials to discuss the future of the MIT-Portugal Program. From left: Chancellor Phillip Clay; José Mariano Gago, Portugal's Minister of Science, Technology and Higher Education; Dean Subra Suresh, School of Engineering; and Manuel Heitor, Portuguese Secretary of State for Science, Technology, and Higher Education.
MIT hosted a visit this week by Portuguese government officials to discuss the future of the MIT-Portugal Program. From left: Chancellor Phillip Clay; José Mariano Gago, Portugal's Minister of Science, Technology and Higher Education; Dean Subra Suresh, School of Engineering; and Manuel Heitor, Portuguese Secretary of State for Science, Technology, and Higher Education.
Photo / Justin Knight

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 29 - The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Portuguese Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education this week announced plans to strengthen the joint research agenda they initiated in 2006 with the launch of the MIT-Portugal Program. The revisited strategy aims at a longer-term collaboration focused on three main areas: sustainable urban/regional systems; stem cell research for regenerative medicine; and materials and design-inspired products.

The MIT-Portugal Program is a major initiative undertaken by the Portuguese government to strengthen the country's knowledge base at an international level through a strategic investment in people, knowledge and ideas.

Emerging global challenges, including those resulting from the current international economic crisis, create new opportunities for the MIT-Portugal Program. These challenges call for new solutions requiring a systems-thinking perspective. The new solutions reflected in the revisited strategy will be diverse, but they will share four main features: they will be designed for complexity, uncertainty, and emergence following "engineering systems" principles, in order to significantly expand research and education in engineering systems across many of Portugal's top national universities, in close collaboration with MIT.

A high-level meeting at MIT

The revisited strategy was confirmed during a meeting at MIT this week between José Mariano Gago, the Portuguese minister of science, technology and higher education; Manuel Heitor, Portugal's secretary of state for science, technology and higher education; MIT Chancellor Phillip L. Clay; and Subra Suresh, MIT's dean of engineering, as well as at a meeting of MIT-Portugal's Program Governing Committee. It is based on thorough discussions undertaken in recent months among Portuguese and MIT faculty, in close consultation with industry in Portugal and the Program's External Review Committee.

Minister Gago, emphasizing the importance of the collaboration, said, "the MIT-Portugal Program will bring new blood and will provide new challenges to the very fast and impressive growth of Portuguese science and technology."

According to Dean Suresh, "MIT-Portugal has not only made great strides in creating education and research programs of great value to Portugal and MIT, but also has developed substantive plans to expand upon those successes in the coming years. Its work is even more significant now, given the global economic downturn."

"The MIT-Portugal Program is MIT's largest program in Europe," said Chancellor Clay. "We are gratified by the results during the first two years. Seven new innovative graduate programs have been developed, joint research has been initiated, Portuguese faculty and students are working at MIT, and new university-industry relationships have been fostered in Portugal. We will now build upon this success with the revisited strategy, which targets the most promising areas of research."

Secretary Heitor also supported the revisited strategy for MIT-Portugal. "It will promote new engineering research in Europe. It considers the development of new knowledge based on scientific research in three clusters of methods and models fostering systems thinking: design and implementation; uncertainty and dynamics; and networks and flows. And it includes applications to core systems issues for urban metabolism, energy and transportation systems, supply chain, manufacturing, cell engineering and the health system, and is based on advanced coupling and development of modeling tools."

Building on successes to date

After a successful first two and a half years, MIT-Portugal has established research consortia among leading Portuguese engineering schools, related research laboratories, and groups at MIT. Among the key strategic goals going forward:

Adopting a holistic view on planning and modeling energy systems should increase by 100 percent the penetration of renewable energies in electricity production in the near term, and reduce by 50 percent the fossil fuel dependence and the greenhouse gas emission for this purpose. These goals are being demonstrated in the "Green Islands" project in Azores Islands, which is intended to demonstrate high penetration levels of renewable energies, making use of smart energy networks, adequate transportation systems, improved energy-efficiency schemes in buildings, active demand side management technologies, as well active management of electric vehicle grid integration.

Improving the fundamental knowledge of stem cell features and potential uses, toward the delineation of effective clinical-grade technologies for the controlled expansion and/or differentiation of adult stem cell populations. (For example, innovative cellular therapies tested at the Instituto Português de Oncologia (IPO) Francisco Gentil in Lisbon since October 2007 have brought about a clear improvement in the quality of life and life extension of patients.)

Providing new expertise and research capacity to support the Portuguese strategy to lead innovative niche markets for mobility industries in the coming five years, with an emphasis on electric vehicles for urban environments, as well to facilitate the usage of new polymeric and structural materials in niche markets typical of low-carbon city cars.

The program will strengthen research and education collaboration in several focus areas of strategic significance to both MIT and Portugal:

Sustainable energy systems: Emphasis will be given to their integration in energy networks, as well as in energy economics and industrial ecology. An international energy company, SGC Energy, is joining this effort as an industrial affiliate, and will help to foster new research in bio-energy.

Transportation systems: The overarching focus will continue to be on the design of complex large-scale transportation systems that will have major societal impact and provide opportunities for sustainable economic development throughout Portugal. The emphasis is on high-speed rail systems and the implementation of intelligent transportation systems (ITS).

Bio-engineering systems: With advanced study and doctoral programs in place that are aimed at educating a new generation of leaders in bio-engineering technical innovation, this area will consider the growing international relevance of stem cell research and enhance its efforts in such areas as innovative cell therapy, tissue engineering for regenerative medicine, and advanced medical devices. The goal is to bring about new business opportunities related to the promotion of well being in an aging population.

Engineering design and advanced manufacturing (EDAM): MIT-Portugal will focus on the adoption of multidimensional and systems approaches to develop environmentally friendly products and optimal operational efficiencies that reinstate working margins and provide financial sustainability to the automotive industry, with an emphasis on niche markets for low-carbon city cars and related systems.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 6, 2009 (download PDF).

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