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MIT Better World

By Mark Wolverton

At a place such as MIT where innovation is an almost daily occurrence, that can be a frustrating dilemma. The International Policy Lab (IPL) was set up within MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS) to help make the leap from the lab bench or seminar blackboard to the halls of Congress or a decision-maker’s desk.

“The genesis of IPL was the realization that we had a number of faculty members at MIT whose research was relevant for public policy”—with bearing on such important issues as energy, environmental science, national security, or health and medicine—“but who weren’t sure how to engage with the policy community,” says Chappell Lawson, associate professor of political science and IPL’s faculty director. As he puts it, “Sometimes we fumble the ball on the one-yard line, so that after a massive amount of work on the research side of things, for whatever reason that material doesn’t get into the right hands of the right people at the right time. That last piece is often what’s missing.”

Lawson joined MIT after a stint in government on the staff of the National Security Council in the Clinton Administration, and later took time out to serve in the Obama Administration working on border security issues for the Department of Homeland Security. It was upon returning from that second adventure in Washington that he, along with several other like-minded faculty, recognized that an opportunity to solve this problem was staring them in the face. “An assistant secretary in the federal government is not going to read a 30-page report, but they might take a meeting, listen to a short pitch, or read a one-page memo,” he says. What if MIT could help faculty members find the right way to engage with policy makers? About three years ago, Lawson and his colleagues secured funding from CIS, the dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and the Office of the Provost, and began soliciting project proposals from the MIT community.

A good early example of the sort of projects that IPL has come to facilitate came from R. Scott Kemp, associate professor of nuclear science and engineering and director of the MIT Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy. Kemp’s project concerned the proliferation risks of a new laser enrichment process for uranium.

“The reason this was of interest was that there had been a quiet push to license and build a facility in the US, but no government agency had carried out a technical assessment of the nuclear weapons proliferation risk that the technology might bring if it were commercialized,” Kemp explains. According to Kemp, neither the Nuclear Regulatory Commission nor Congress chose to examine the problem, meaning “the US was moving forward in blind ignorance of potential risks to international security that this technology might involve. So we took it upon ourselves here at MIT to actually carry out that assessment.”

That’s where IPL came in. Says Kemp, “IPL not only supported our work and outreach, but also in essence carried out research relative to what the perceived risks were in government, so we understood what was already being taken into account, what was not being taken into account, and then who were the right people to talk to.” As it happened, the companies involved with the laser enrichment technology ultimately decided not to pursue it, but IPL was “instrumental in helping us get important technical facts into the hands of the people who needed to make decisions.”

Kemp’s next IPL project involved a new technical solution for the verification of nuclear warhead dismantlement. He says that IPL helped his group cut through the “not invented here” syndrome that often pervades federal bureaucracy and creates resistance to outsiders’ ideas. “We’ve certainly put them on notice that some of the technology development being done at MIT should be looked at more seriously, and IPL was very instrumental in making that happen,” Kemp says.

The IPL has helped MIT faculty reach international policy makers as well. Jessika Trancik, associate professor at the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), engaged IPL resources to respond to an Obama Administration request for a report on her research addressing the feedback between emission reduction policy and technological innovation in clean energy. That report was used by the White House to inform its work in the months leading up to the COP21 Paris Climate Conference in 2015, and referenced by State Department negotiators during the COP. Another of her IPL projects examined methane emissions, their effect on meeting US climate goals, and their relevance to energy policy. IPL has been “an invaluable resource for strategizing about how to translate research results into useful information for policy makers,” she says.

Trancik is also co-faculty director of the IPL with Lawson and Noelle Selin, an associate professor affiliated with IDSS and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “So now I’m also working with IPL to think about how we can expand our footprint and build on this initial success and amplify that further,” Trancik says. “We’re brainstorming ways to get different projects and faculty members and researchers to engage with each other to share lessons and build a community around policy research here at MIT.”

In addition to using IPL in their own work, faculty participants help to review the project proposals that IPL solicits annually from the MIT community. “The idea is to serve faculty at all five schools, including social scientists and urban planners and MIT Sloan faculty as well as scientists and engineers,” Lawson explains, noting different projects call for a range of approaches. “For some, the right strategy might be to meet with people in the executive branch. For others, it might be to meet with people on the Hill, or some combination of the two. And for still others, it might be a much larger audience, like experts who are outside of government or even the informed public who cares about the issue.”

Lawson boils down IPL’s services to three points: “The first is working with faculty members to define what it is that they want to get out of engaging with the policy community. The second is almost a matchmaking service, connecting faculty members with people in government, the executive branch, legislative staff, think tanks, the media, who are interested in the results of their research and are in a position to make policy that’s related to it. And we provide staff support and modest grants to faculty members for engaging in this sort of outreach.”

R. Scott Kemp, associate professor of nuclear science and engineering and director of the MIT Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy. Photo: Justin Knight
Chappell Lawson, associate professor of political science and IPL’s faculty director. Photo: Stuart Darsch, Boston
Jessika Trancik, associate professor at the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). Photo: Justin Knight

Emphatically a nonpartisan endeavor, IPL does not seek to influence policy on behalf of MIT, but the faculty members it assists often do comment on how specific policies might influence outcomes, based on their research findings. That policy makers are receptive to such input, Lawson observes, is due in part to the Institute’s strong reputation. “MIT is not viewed as ‘liberal academia,’” he says. “People recognize the value of the science and engineering that’s done here. It’s an institution that people on both sides of the aisle have great regard for. That offers a real opportunity to connect on technical and scientific issues.”

It may have started out as something of an experiment but IPL is flourishing: the number of proposals submitted has roughly doubled each year. And other unexpected benefits are beginning to appear. Not only are some faculty members building more long-term relationships with policy makers in their fields, but as Lawson notes, “we’ve seen that their understanding of the policy issues can inform their research. They may choose to work on slightly different topics or work on them in a slightly different way because of the interactions they’ve had with policy makers.” So what was originally conceived as a more or less one-way conduit from MIT to Washington is becoming more of a two-way connection, the beginnings of a symbiosis. Lawson, the former Washington insider turned academic, cites other rewards—“a wonderful feeling from watching MIT professors get more engaged in policy and having policy better informed by science,” he says, and “the pleasure of helping to address a major market failure in the American political system.”

For faculty members like Kemp, the “translational element” remains paramount. “It’s completely inadequate to publish results in a technical journal and expect anyone to pay attention to them,” he says. “You have to frame these issues within the incentive structure of the people making decisions, and IPL is good at finding out what that context is. I think it helps MIT have a lot more impact in the world.”