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Taking on climate change, Rad Lab style

MIT is on a mission—six missions, in fact—to tackle the hardest climate problems where our efforts will have the greatest impact.

Sally Kornbluth
Gretchen Ertl

When I last wrote, the Institute had just announced MIT’s Climate Project. Now that it’s underway, I’d like to tell you a bit more about how we came to launch this ambitious new enterprise. 

In the fall of 2022, as soon as I accepted the president’s job at MIT, several of my oldest friends spontaneously called to say, in effect, “Can you please fix the climate?”

And once I arrived, I heard the same sentiment, framed in local terms: “Can you please help us organize ourselves to help fix the climate?” 

Everyone understood that MIT brought tremendous strength to that challenge: More than 20% of our faculty already do leading-edge climate work. And everyone understood that in a place defined by its decentralization, focusing our efforts in this way would require a fresh approach. This was my kind of challenge—creating the structures and incentives to help talented people do much more together than they could do alone, so we could direct that collective power to help deliver climate solutions to the world, in time.

My first step was to turn to Vice Provost Richard Lester, PhD ’80, a renowned nuclear engineer with a spectacular record of organizing big, important efforts at MIT—including the Climate Grand Challenges. Working with more than 100 faculty, over the past year Richard led us to define the hardest climate problems where MIT could make the most substantial difference—our six Climate Missions:

  • Decarbonizing Energy and Industry
  • Restoring the Atmosphere, Protecting the Land and Oceans
  • Empowering Frontline Communities
  • Building and Adapting Healthy, Resilient Cities
  • Inventing New Policy Approaches
  • Wild Cards

Each mission will be a problem-solving community, focused on the research, translation, outreach, and innovation it will take to get emerging ideas out of the lab and deployed at scale. We are unabashedly focused on outcomes, and the faculty leaders we are recruiting for each mission will help develop their respective roadmaps.

In facing this vast challenge, we’re consciously building the Climate Project in the spirit of MIT’s Rad Lab, an incredible feat of cooperative research which achieved scientific miracles, at record speed, with an extraordinary sense of purpose. With the leadership and ingenuity of the people of MIT, and our partners around the globe, we aim for the Climate Project at MIT to do the same. 

Sally Kornbluth
March 20, 2024

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