Agents of Change: Model Partnerships with Academia

author: Lennart Billfalk, Vattenfall AB
author: Ernest J. Moniz, Department of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Theodore Smith, The Kendall Foundation
author: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker
moderator: Joanne Kauffman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: March 25, 2013,   recorded: January 2008,   views: 2608

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This panel offers some evidence that sustained alliances between academia and other organizations may help us more effectively address climate change issues.

In Sweden, Lennart Billfalk says, universities have historically cooperated with industry. In the 1980s, when interest in electrical engineering was waning, Billfalk’s Vattenfall power company financed new labs and committed to extra teaching resources, spawning a whole new generation of electrical engineers attuned to key energy issues. In the 90s, the government and industry financed joint research centers, which are helping Sweden fulfill its commitment to reduce CO2 emissions 50% by 2030, and 80% by 2050. R&D from these collaborations has led to carbon capture and storage projects, and several CO2 free pilot power plants in Europe.

Ernest Moniz pegs several factors integral to the success of academic-industrial collaborations, including a long-term commitment from both sides --“think about programs, not projects”; the alignment of these programs with the corporation’s strategic plan; and a joint steering mechanism. MIT tries to apply these principles to its Energy Initiative, bringing multidisciplinary teams from across campus to focus on research, education, campus energy management and public outreach (as an “honest broker” on climate change and energy issues). Moniz describes some flagship programs around coal conversion and carbon capture with MIT’s key industry research partners, as well as a seed grant program funding bold ideas from across the campus; and fellowships encouraging students to direct their talent toward the energy innovation field.

The world’s best endowed foundations are “missing from important fields” such as physics and the biosciences, and few have turned their attention to climate change, says Theodore Smith. And while academia has focused on the science and technology of climate change, it has not cultivated “a civic voice” to speak on these issues in the broader public discourse. Smith regrets this neglect, because there’s a “yearning from those of us outside the academy to hear voices speaking in clear English.” Smith’s Henry Kendall Foundation seeks to promote greater communication between academia and the world at large. It also hopes to spark transformative change in Cambridge, by supporting a massive reduction in energy consumption that requires Harvard and MIT to play central roles.

Elizabeth Kolbert acknowledges “the pretty colossal failure over the last decade of communication on the issues of climate change and sustainability,” and says there’s plenty of blame to go around. Journalists hate complicated issues, and sustained the climate change “debate” long after it ceased to be a scientific argument. Scientists generated long, technical reports while maintaining neutrality and avoiding a policy agenda. The level of ignorance in Washington is staggering, says Kolbert, and the public simply tunes out when the story is climate change. Kolbert insists “we must challenge ourselves” as academicians and journalists. She suggests that MIT put a lot of effort into making its own campus a model for sustainability, a “bold step” that might garner public interest.

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