Listening – and organizing ourselves for impact
Dear members of the MIT community,
With a number of key building projects under way, parts of campus have a certain gritty, “under construction” feeling. But all the cranes and scaffolding also bring a sense of progress and possibility.
That’s a useful way to think about a lot of things we’re working on this semester – many inspired by suggestions and concerns you shared in my ongoing listening tour.
So I write now to give you a feel for what we have “under construction” in terms of two priorities:
- Helping the people of MIT come together to make progress in a few high-impact fields, starting with climate and generative AI
- And enhancing our systems and processes to smooth the path for faculty and staff.
More than the sum of our parts
Across the Institute, I’ve heard an intense desire to see the people of MIT come together in meaningful ways to meet the great challenges of our time – to organize ourselves for positive impact.
We’re beginning by focusing on two areas: climate change and generative AI. (To help us all keep track of MIT’s efforts in these areas, we’ll soon have two dedicated boxes on the home page and MIT News that will lead you to the latest on each.)
As I said in my inaugural remarks, climate change and its mounting consequences present the greatest and most urgent scientific and societal challenge of our age. Given MIT's depth and breadth of expertise, and our mission of service, I believe we have an urgent responsibility to marshal ourselves to reckon with it. Climate is a professional focus for more than 20 percent of our faculty; last spring, I convened groups of faculty and staff to begin to understand what we might aim to achieve together.
As you’d expect, I encountered lots of enthusiasm and ideas, but not yet agreement on a single vision. So I asked Vice Provost Richard Lester to lead the continuing discussion. Over the summer, Richard and members of the Climate Nucleus and the Climate Education Working Group consulted with more than 100 faculty and staff to delineate MIT’s climate-related strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, from science to innovation to policy.
In response to what they learned, we are drafting a proposed path forward, which we'll improve and refine with further community input. As our plans come into focus, we'll share much more about how we plan to tackle those pieces of this global challenge where we can make the most important difference.
In this high-stakes moment – given the exceptional pace of change in generative AI, the mounting interest in its societal impacts, and MIT’s breadth of relevant expertise – it’s vital to make sure the people of MIT have the opportunities, resources and connections to contribute their knowledge and insight.
In this realm, our idea is to help connect related efforts and to enable people across the Institute to help humanity pursue a future of AI innovation that is broadly beneficial and that limits potential harms, both intentional and unintentional.
As you’ll see, this semester alone, the campus is buzzing with a range of compelling projects and activities (and if we’ve missed any other important items, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org).
- To help inform Congress and other government leaders as they consider how and whether to regulate generative AI, MIT faculty experts, in concert with MIT’s DC office, have developed a policy white paper. The goal: to promote policies that encourage the rapid advance of broadly beneficial AI, while making sure that societal and ethical considerations are not a side dish, but baked into every item on the menu.
- To understand how generative AI tools can improve workers’ job quality and productivity, MIT Work of the Future is convening a new working group of industry, policy and academic leaders. They aim to move past speculation about the impacts of generative AI and use real-world data to guide research, education and industry best practices.
- To provide faculty with resources to pursue frontier ideas about the societal impacts of generative AI, in July, Provost Cindy Barnhart and I invited faculty to propose “impact papers.” The response was overwhelming, with 75 proposals on topics from education to democracy to research integrity, financial advice to musical discovery. A faculty committee chose to fund the development of 27 of these concepts into full papers, due December 15. We plan to invite a second round of submissions later this fall.
- To inspire students to come up with compelling ideas for AI entrepreneurship, on October 30, the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab will hold MIT Ignite: Gen AI Entrepreneurship competition. This team-based student competition will help fund projects with high potential for real-world impact and applications. The deadline to submit an idea is October 2.
- To explore transformative ideas about the uses of generative AI in education, MIT will jointly sponsor an event with Axim Collaborative and Harvard, “AI & Education: Inclusive Innovation for Student Success.” Learn more or sign up for the opening event on November 14 at Harvard.
- To help showcase MIT experts, inspire our community and stimulate important conversations, we will hold MIT Generative AI Week. Following the public kick-off on November 28, we’ll host two days of invited workshops on how generative AI can help enhance human health and the health of the planet; creativity; business and finance; and education.
Smoothing the Path
This summer we announced several leadership shifts and searches, such as the search now open for a faculty member to serve as senior vice provost for research. I call your attention to it here because it’s one component in a deliberate strategy to make our systems work even better for faculty and staff. In my listening tour, I heard very clearly the need to reduce their administrative load. So now – building on the terrific groundwork laid by our research administration staff – we are moving on this rapidly.
This fall, we’re launching a pilot program to test an important change in how we handle under-recovery. (Under-recovery is the funding gap that occurs when a sponsor does not cover a research project’s full “indirect” costs, such as utilities, space and administration.) The current system provides some core central funding, which is augmented substantially by school/college, DLCI and principal investigator (PI) resources. PIs may spend significant time and effort sourcing under-recovery funding for a project.
With the pilot, we are shifting to providing a larger total central sum, which will then be “budgeted out” across the Institute, to enable local under-recovery decision-making.
It’s not a magic wand, but I believe this represents real progress and will provide meaningful relief. We expect to announce the details of the under-recovery funding pilot soon.
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MIT is known around the world for hard, important work. But even as we tackle these and other serious challenges, I hope we can also find more opportunities to appreciate each other and enjoy all the strengths and pleasures of our amazing community (and our neighborhood, like next week’s Cambridge Science Festival.)
From a certain delightful surprise in my office to joining the Chorallaries in performing our zany school song for Convocation, I’ve been struck by the MIT community’s warm, friendly, unpretentious sense of fun. I know it makes us happier – and that makes us better.