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From the president

A maker mindset

Not all the tools we develop at MIT are physical—but that does not diminish their power and potential.

December 17, 2021
MIT President L.Rafael Reif
Simon Simard

People outside our community often ask me what makes MIT different. The answer has many facets, of course. It includes our distinctive grounding in the analytical rigor of the STEM fields, our appetite for very hard problems, our passion for learning by doing and hands-on problem-solving, our openness to working with industry, and our commitment to building a better world. Another feature I like to emphasize: MIT is a place where we love to make new tools—the kind that allow us to detect the undetectable, predict the unpredictable, measure the unmeasurable, make possible the impossible, ask novel questions, and explore new frontiers. 

GPS. 3D printing. The technologies the LIGO team developed to detect gravitational waves. When you invent tools this powerful, everyone wants to use them. They can open the doors to new knowledge, advance entire disciplines, inspire new industries, and provide the wisdom to help society make better decisions on a grand scale. 

And as we were reminded when Ford Professor of Economics Joshua Angrist was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, not all the tools we develop at MIT are physical—but that does not diminish their power and potential. 

Professor Angrist and his colleagues at Blueprint Labs have developed analytical tools that put complex societal questions “under a microscope.” The research methods developed by Angrist and his fellow laureate Guido Imbens of Stanford allow them to draw reliable conclusions about cause and effect using “natural experiments”—real-life situations like a change in education policy, a wage increase … or a pandemic. 

Using these techniques, economists can answer all kinds of previously unanswerable questions about everything from the fair allocation of medical resources to the effectiveness of charter schools to the relationship between military service and lifetime earnings. This approach has changed the course of economics.

Not every exciting new tool produces an early-morning call from Sweden. But I am convinced that one of MIT’s essential strengths is our passion for making tools that help us make a better world.

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