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Thinking Beyond the Laboratory

An Open Letter to President Hockfield

By Peter A. Shulman

Dear President Hockfield,

What does MIT owe the world?

In your May 6 inaugural address, you boldly announced a major research commitment to address the world’s energy problems, creating the Energy Research Council (ERC) to advise you on energy-related issues. This week, the ERC turned to the MIT student community for ideas on how MIT could best address our energy problems.

Three items stand out.

First, it is vital to increase MIT’s share of research into energy-related technologies and sciences. We should be in the lead here, period.

Second, MIT’s campus should itself be a laboratory for clean energy and efficient building technologies. Our campus should be the model for other campuses, towns and municipalities, neighborhoods and office complexes. We must show that clean energy technology is available, affordable, and practical in the real world.

Third, and most importantly, MIT must confront the reality that technologies alone do not solve human problems.

Consider these facts: engineers have already developed wind energy technologies that are economically competitive with conventional electricity generation in many (windy) markets. Hybrid auto technology is easily available. Geothermal home heating is cheap ($3,000 a home), but rarely, if ever, installed for neighborhoods and is generally available only in high-end, custom houses. Existing cogeneration technology captures otherwise completely wasted heat energy but is infrequently used. Pick your efficient technology of choice — the engineering is there, but something is still missing: an understanding of the social context of technology.

If we are serious about addressing our energy crises — and it is appropriate to speak of these crises in the plural — it is essential that MIT engineers and scientists work alongside social scientists and humanists to understand why some technologies are adopted and others fail even if the failing technology is demonstrably better. Without this insight, MIT will be throwing money and resources at a problem that is simply unsolvable by technological means alone.

My field is the History of Science, Technology, and the Environment, and my research is in the History of Energy. We in this field have shown time and again that people adopt technologies for reasons other than their efficiency, technical sweetness, or even cost. Some choices are of habit, others convenience. Sometimes the choice is not even the consumer’s to make (try changing where your electricity comes from). Furthermore, once large, complex technological systems (like our petroleum infrastructure, for example) are built, they are extremely difficult to discard. Political choices, tax policies, and environmental laws also contribute to making some systems more viable than others.

MIT has always been at the forefront of technological research. That is what we are known for and have been known for since the late nineteenth century. But the history of technology has shown that technology alone is insufficient to address the tangle of techno-social problems.

More than ever, we need the insight, contribution, and collaborative efforts of social psychologists; sociologists; anthropologists; historians of science, technology, energy, and the environment; management experts; policy analysts; clergy, and others with knowledge of the social world.

President Hockfield, what would be truly innovative, and demonstrate MIT’s commitment to addressing the seriousness of our current and future energy crises, would be to bring our engineers and scientists together with their colleagues in the social sciences and the humanities to think beyond the laboratory.

Now is our collective opportunity to do something more, to develop solutions beyond the better machine. To do that will take unprecedented collaboration.

What does MIT owe the world? The best engineering and science research and education on the planet? Certainly. Leadership in addressing the most pressing challenges of the 21st century? You bet. But most of all, we owe the world our respect for its complexity. We owe our appreciation that people, politics, psychology, and ethics are as much needed as new ideas and innovation. We owe the world that the daring of our solutions will consider the enormity of the problem.

Is MIT up to the task?


Peter A. Shulman ’01 is a PhD candidate in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society and is a former president of the Undergraduate Association.