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From the president

SHASS steps up

Our faculty in the social sciences and humanities played a key role in illuminating the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic and offering practical guidance to improve electoral practices nationwide.

October 26, 2021
MIT President L.Rafael Reif
Simon Simard

After weathering all the difficulties of the last 20 months, including the rough waters of covid-19, the MIT community has many reasons to be proud. 

When it comes to the pandemic, everyone knows that the people of MIT have made extraordinary technical contributions: designing inexpensive open-source ventilators, tracking the spread of the virus, developing testing methods and potential therapies, and pioneering the early detection of covid by testing municipal wastewater. MIT researchers even found a way to detect the virus through coughs, with the help of AI modeling.

But the pandemic-year contributions that came from SHASS have also been remarkable. Much of this work embodies a central tenet of MIT’s mission: interdisciplinarity. In seeking to understand and help mitigate the pandemic’s wide-ranging impact, SHASS faculty partnered with a broad spectrum of colleagues.

  • In economics, faculty have investigated the impact of covid-19 on everything from work and transportation to health care and vaccines. To conduct a study of public health messaging in underserved communities, economists collaborated with peers in medicine, public policy, finance, and machine learning. 
  • As the US strived to hold a presidential election during a global pandemic, political scientist Charles Stewart, working with Stanford’s Nate Persily, took a scientific, data-driven approach to produce a set of voting security recommendations that were employed by districts across the country. Data from primary elections and other sources yielded insight into a range of challenges, like managing an uptick in mail ballots, ensuring adequate numbers of poll workers, and reengineering polling places to keep voters safe.
  • Faculty from several SHASS departments joined forces to create “The History of Now: Plagues and Pandemics,” a live online course open to anyone with an internet connection. MIT students and many others around the world tuned in to learn from historians, anthropologists, an epidemiologist, and the author of a book on the Spanish flu. The course provided the deep context that reveals how our individual experiences fit into the history of the whole human family.

In the same spirit of interdisciplinarity, I am delighted at the growing momentum of the Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC) program, which weaves the social, ethical, and economic implications of technology into the study of computing across all five MIT schools and the College of Computing. 

Today’s most urgent societal problems are too complex to be solved with science and engineering alone. Progress depends on tapping the methods and wisdom of every domain.

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