MIT Climate Nucleus
Friday, February 18, 2022
The meeting began with the introduction of Edward Wack, Head of the Biotechnology and Human Systems Division at Lincoln Laboratory, as a new member of the Nucleus, to serve as the Lincoln Laboratory’s representative on the committee.
The co-chairs and committee staff then provided an updated on the formation of the climate working groups: The membership of the climate policy working group has been finalized, and the membership of the climate education working group has been finalized with the exception of one outstanding invitation. Work continues to finalize the membership of the carbon footprint working group. The expectation is that the co-chairs of the education and policy working groups will be able to reach out to their memberships potentially before the end of February.
The co-chairs and committee staff then provided an update on the Climate Grand Challenges initiative.
Strategic hiring discussion
The Nucleus then held an extended discussion about this action item in the Fast Forward plan:
Through coordinated, strategic hiring across all five schools and the college, MIT will devote at least 20 upcoming faculty openings to climate- and sustainability-focused talent over the next five years.
The co-chairs noted that they have begun speaking with deans, department heads, and faculty in all five schools and the College about this strategic hiring effort, and they asked Nucleus members for guidance. Specifically, the co-chairs asked for feedback on the following questions:
- Who should MIT hire to fill strategic “gaps” in different areas of climate expertise?
- How do we evaluate excellence for “climate” faculty?
- How can we ensure new hires’ success at MIT?
In terms of strategic gaps, members of the Nucleus raised the following as potential areas of expertise where MIT could benefit from additional or complementary expertise:
- Indigenous environmental planning;
- Agriculture, plant biology, soil science;
- Public opinion on climate change;
- Climate policy; and
- Net-zero planning (for companies, institutions, municipalities, states/provinces, etc.).
Beyond identifying these areas of expertise, members also offered the following suggestions:
- Assessing MIT departments to identify those most in need of climate expertise, and prioritizing those departments first.
- Bringing onboard visiting professors (for a semester or two), particularly those involved with international climate negotiations or other aspects of climate policy.
- Giving thought to creating a division of climate research or something to that effect, in order to unify climate researchers in a more cross-disciplinary way, rather than sprinkling hires around different schools and departments.
- Hiring an expert who would have a foot both on campus and at Lincoln Laboratory, with the aim of getting climate technology solutions built, tested, and deployed as quickly as possible.
One member made the case that faculty recruitment should focus on individuals whose research and outreach have the potential to make a near-term impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Another member then suggested that this need might be better met by hiring faculty members who already have tenure (and thus can go right into working on shorter timescale problems) or professors of the practice. In response, the first member argued against giving up on the idea that MIT could make changes in the criteria for promotion and tenure, consistent with the urgency of climate change. This member also made the case that the focus should be on solving the climate problem, through whatever hires best enable that focus (whether professors of the practice, postdocs, lecturers, or tenure-track faculty members).
Members engaged in some discussion and debate about whether identifying specific needs and gaps is the best way to approach strategic hiring, or whether it makes sense instead to step back and make the case to deans and department heads that climate change is a long-term issue that demands a larger shift (or pivot) in priorities, including hiring priorities.
Finally, one member suggested that the members of the Nucleus should meet with the chair of the MIT corporation and the chair of the committee conducting the search for a new MIT president to discuss climate issue. Several members supported this idea.