Outline for Engagement
Cover of the ERC Report depicting the solar-powered
co-evolution of life and Earth. The figurative Sun's
corona is the genome map of the most abundant
photosynthetic cell on Earth, while the pre-dawn urban
illumination of Europe offers a striking manifestation
of human influence on the planet.
We recognize that most if not all of the many environmental challenges facing us are complex, intimately interrelated, pressing and, as yet, poorly understood. Addressing these challenges will require deep scientific understanding of all the interactions that comprise our global environment, creativity in devising human behavioral and technological solutions, and a clear-eyed sense of the economic and political obstacles to adopting and implementing those solutions. With its innately interdisciplinary problem-solving culture, MIT is uniquely well-positioned to contribute.
Thus GEI will adopt an inclusive approach welcoming the participation of all interested faculty, research staff and students. Through an extensive process of Institute-wide inquiry and engagement, the ERC has already begun organizing six areas of research momentum with which to launch GEI—Climate, Oceans, Water, Ecological Resilience, Contamination Mitigation and Sustainable Societies. These interrelated themes represent the convergence of MIT’s strengths and potential with many of our greatest environmental challenges.
Scientists, engineers, and social scientists from across MIT are currently engaged in four climate-related programs: the Center for Global Change Science, the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Climate Change, the Climate Modeling Initiative and the Lorenz Center. Taken together, they constitute a comprehensive foundation for understanding the climate system, its responses to human activity, and the policies for mitigation and adaptation. An emerging priority within this theme is to reduce the uncertainties of predicting climate variability and change in response to both natural cycles and human activity.
In partnership with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), MIT has unparalleled capabilities in ocean observation and modeling, microbial oceanography, and the analysis of marine ecosystem dynamics. Researchers from MIT and WHOI are also investigating the impacts on coastal and marine ecosystems of urban development, fishery management, and other human activities. Priorities within this theme include understanding the role of oceans in climate and in global biogeochemical cycles, and detecting the impacts of global climate change, particularly sea-level rise and ocean acidification.
Researchers at MIT aim to comprehend the impact of climate on regional water supplies, assess the consequences of chemical accumulation in fresh water systems, and lead in the development of clean water technologies. Designers at MIT are working to create landscapes that conserve water and restore regional aquatic ecosystems. Policy scholars are analyzing human impacts on regional water systems, and devising governance processes and policy mechanisms to mitigate and avert water shortages around the globe. Priorities within this theme include observing and understanding the role of water in the global environment, developing technologies and policies to ensure safe water supplies, and innovating in water-conserving landscape and urban design.
Through an alliance between the physical and life sciences and engineering, MIT researchers are forging the new discipline of Modern Ecology, which focuses on the fundamental building blocks of ecological systems. One aim of modern ecology is to model the dynamics of ecosystems and understand the sources of their resilience. Another is to draw on advanced technologies and theoretical developments in order to decode “ecosystem genomes.” Other research priorities include proper valuation of ecosystem services, and investigating the effectiveness of different strategies to conserve biodiversity in both developed and natural landscapes.
Research on contamination mitigation is embedded in diverse research labs scattered across the schools of Science and Engineering. Social scientists at MIT are also investigating the true costs of environmental contamination, as well as the effectiveness of policies aimed to discourage the use of harmful substances and processes. Significant potential for innovation in the science, engineering and practice of contamination remediation remains to be tapped, while an emerging area of priority research within this theme lies in developing ‘benign-by-design’ chemical, material, process and biological engineering practices to reduce the need for future remediation.
Scholars from across MIT are working to enhance our understanding of how societies can become more sustainable. The School of Architecture and Planning boasts an international reputation for research on the design and governance of resilient cities. Researchers at the Sloan School of Management pursue pioneering work on environmentally sustainable business practices. Integrating these resources with those of the schools of Engineering, Science, and Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, priorities within this theme include addressing the technical, managerial, economic, business, policy and cultural challenges of simultaneously optimizing human welfare and environmental sustainability.