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MIT Better World

By Ari Daniel PhD ’08

“You could maybe see a few feet ahead of you,” she recalls. Much of that seasonal air pollution comes from the burning of crop stubble left behind after harvest in more rural areas to the north. It gets trapped and concentrated in a thin layer of air near the ground, blows southward, and chokes the communities in its wake.

However, Maji says the impacts of agricultural practices extend far beyond waste burning and air pollution; many practices are inherently water- and energy-intensive, too. So, through her work today as a postdoctoral researcher with MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and as the coordinator of the Research to Policy Engagement Initiative in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program (TPP), Maji takes a wider view. She’s examining how policies that incentivize a shift toward different types of farming might benefit air and water quality, energy consumption, resource scarcity, and the climate.

TPP’s Research to Policy Engagement Initiative was launched in 2019 to address exactly this kind of multifaceted problem. Maji says its aim is to forge “connections between the work that we do in our lab and on our laptops with the challenges on the ground to create real and lasting impact.” The group achieves this by meeting with researchers and policy makers, working collectively to solve problems within and across labs, and organizing cross-disciplinary seminars. Topics for these gatherings, which may involve community partners, government, and industry, range broadly from the trade-offs of deploying Covid-19 testing in the workplace to the prospects for using policy, research, and advocacy to close the racial digital divide.

Measuring sustainability

In her environmental work, one of Maji’s steady collaborators is TPP master’s student and Biogen Fellow Will Atkinson, whose research examines how climate and health data can be used to make policy decisions more equitable, immediate, and cost-effective. (Atkinson has long been something of a data junkie. As a kid, he’d tear open the Providence Journal, locate the sports section, and pore over the Red Sox box scores—each one a statistical summary of the game.) This past year, Atkinson has spent much of his time updating projections of air pollutant emissions so he can compare the efficacy of possible interventions, such as fuel efficiency improvements or the wholesale adoption of electric vehicles.

Since both Maji and Atkinson are working out ways to measure sustainability, they share their results, give each other feedback, and compare notes on the literature. Together, they hope to move critical research insights into relevant action in the policy world.

Such collaborations are just what Professor Noelle Selin envisioned when she took over as director of TPP in 2018, hoping to grow the program’s footprint and impact. With the Research to Policy Engagement Initiative, she says she wants “to create a community to advance best practices, engage with stakeholders, and learn from one another.” It’s working: Selin, a professor in IDSS and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, now sees people within and outside MIT connecting across a range of disciplines spanning architecture, engineering, business, computing, and the humanities.

In the long run, she hopes the initiative’s work will help those who make decisions do so based on an understanding of the world that is informed by science and technology. Maji agrees. Her dream is to be a part of scaling up the research insights developed at MIT to inform policy at a regional, national, or even international level. It’s the sort of effort, Maji says, that might just allow enough people to locate one another to find a way out of the smog, together.