Inaugural John M Deutch Institute Professor Suzanne Berger reflects on her research, MIT

Inaugural John M Deutch Institute Professor Suzanne Berger reflects on her research, MIT

Berger: ‘That to me is one of the really big questions of political science: Why is it that we can’t cooperate to achieve fundamental things that people want?’

By Edwin Song | July 31, 2019
Edwin Song
July 31, 2019
The Tech

Political science professor Suzanne Berger was named the inaugural John M Deutch Institute Professor July 10. Deutch is an institute professor emeritus of MIT who served as CIA director and US deputy secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton.

During Berger’s time at MIT, she has also served as head of the political science department and founding director of MISTI. 

The Tech sat down with Berger to discuss her new title and her work leading up to it. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Tech: What does the title of John M Deutch Institute Professor mean to you?

Suzanne Berger: I was both surprised and really delighted to be able to be appointed as an Institute Professor because I have a lot of respect for those colleagues [who have been Institute Professors].

John Deutch is someone I've known ever since he was provost of MIT. After his government service, he returned to MIT and just went right back into the chemistry department. I've admired both his contribution to government service and also the fact that when it was finished, he just went back to his department and his own research like any normal person.

TT: You said to MIT News that Institute Professors are “people who both have worked in their own fields and made contributions to the Institute.” What contributions have you made to your own field or to MIT that you are the most proud of?

Berger: I think I’ve made two contributions to political science. One has to do with how we think about people’s interests. I think that political scientists have thought about interests as something that are hardwired into people — that, depending on your economic situation, you are likely to have a definite and fixed interest. I have tried to show that people can define or see their interests in very different ways, and that interests are not primordial, but created through politics and sometimes through culture.

This focus on interests runs through my earliest work and my dissertation — where I study some French peasants — and my very latest work on globalization. I think [views on globalization aren’t] hardwired in our economic interests, but is something where people can come to see themselves and their interests very differently. And I think that's important for politics. 

In terms of the Institute, what I'm really proud of is that we've been able to create the MISTI program that allows hundreds of MIT students to actually have internships in companies and laboratories [globally]. I think that's really important because a lot of innovation gets created in lots of places around the world, and MIT students really need to learn how to create new knowledge outside of the United States.

TT: What inspired you to take on the role of founding director of MISTI?

Berger: As someone who has always been interested in what we can learn from other countries, I saw in the 1990s that we were beginning to have more extensive contacts with China and yet we really had no idea how to offer a set of possibilities for learning about China.

I was the one who designed MISTI. There was one program that existed already that seemed to me a great model. That was the MIT Japan program, which had been created in the 1980s by Professor Richard Samuels because he realized that even though we had dozens — maybe hundreds — of Japanese postdocs and students here, we didn't have a single person at MIT who was capable of going to a Japanese laboratory or company and learning from Japan. He created a program with the idea that if an MIT student would be willing to learn Japanese here on campus for two years, then MIT would offer them an opportunity for an internship in a leading Japanese laboratory and that student would pay nothing.

TT: What challenges did MISTI face in the beginning?

Berger: Initially, MIT faculty could not see why one of their students should go work in a lab somewhere else. They thought we had better equipment we had stronger labs and saw MISTI as a waste of time for their students.

There's been a complete transformation of the professors’ understanding of MISTI since then. People now really understand that this is a really good opportunity for international collaboration.

TT: How has MISTI evolved since your time as director? Do you continue to play a part or help guide the program?

Berger: After 10 years as director, I don't believe any one person should hang around forever. So I look at the program and I'm very proud of how it's evolved. MISTI has many more countries now and they've also developed opportunities for students in their earlier years at MIT.

TT: How has your experience differed between your individual research projects and the Institute-wide initiatives that you've taken part in?

Berger: There's some overlap there. I would say that the Institute-wide project that we did on globalization overlapped a lot with my own my own interests at the moment. I'm really quite fascinated, personally, by going back and looking at what happened during the first globalization: from 1870 to 1914.

I wonder, how did they deal with what we're calling populism today? How did they deal with anti-immigration sentiment? How did they deal with people who wanted protection from tariffs? And how did they manage this? And I don't even know if there is a single other person at MIT who is really that interested in that period, so I would say that there's not too much intersection there. 

But there are of course other questions like how do we deal with a world in which new technologies like robots, AI, and 3D will play a big role. How do we deal with a world like that, without having people so worried about losing their jobs that they look for bad political solutions to their problems?

TT: What work did you envision yourself doing when you came to MIT? How has that vision grown and evolved?

Berger: When I came to MIT, I had been teaching for two years at Harvard, and MIT really offered an interesting and different kind of experience. I had no idea that MIT was going to change me as much as it did. In the 1980s, the president of MIT, Paul Gray, asked 16 different faculty in different departments if we would think about why the United States was doing so badly and why countries like Japan and Germany were excelling in sectors which we had long thought of as American sectors — like automobiles, semiconductors, televisions, and consumer electronics. That experience of collaborating with engineers and scientists was what really changed my whole direction intellectually. Learning how to see the world through their eyes as well as through the eyes of a social scientist made a great difference in my own work.

TT: How have you seen the field of political science and MIT as an institution evolve during your time here?

Berger: MIT is basically an engineering school, so in some sense departments like political science, economics, linguistics, and philosophy are on the periphery, but we are kind of a golden periphery because MIT has been willing to support us fully as long as we can remain among the top departments in the country, among our own field. In political science, even though we have half the number of faculty than the government department at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Berkeley may have, we've remained in the top 10 political science departments in the country. 

People at MIT see the political science department as very useful because they understand we’re outstanding, but maybe they don't quite understand the problems we're interested in. Political science deals with real puzzles about human society. One of the big puzzles of political science is why is it that no one really wants to go out and fight a war, kill, or be killed, and yet we've never been able to get out of a situation in which we're constantly entering one war after another war. That to me is one of the really big questions of political science: Why is it that we can't cooperate to achieve fundamental things that people want?

MIT is now more focused on solving the big problems of human society, human life, and the environment. I think that’s very positive.

Political science is changing and it's moving in a direction that’s more quantitative. It's more focused on methodology. This is not my particular direction, but I can see that happening in the discipline and I think one of the things that's good about the political science department at MIT is that we have welcomed the diversity of different approaches to political science. 

TT: What motivates you in your work?

Berger: Well, I love teaching. I learn so much from the students that I interact with. Even if I teach the same class year after year, the class is never the same because there's so much interaction with the students. The students come with different questions and different ways of seeing the world. So, for me, it's constantly a learning experience. And I think I'm always learning from colleagues in projects like the Work of the Future project.

TT: Do you have any exciting plans for the future?

Berger: We're continuing this summer to go back to companies that we first interviewed six years ago for the Production in the Innovation Economy project and we're asking them a simple question: What new technologies have you acquired over the last six years? And whatever happened to Joe who used to do that job? Is he still working for the company or did they get rid of him? Did he learn how to use the new technology?

TT: What advice would you give to MIT community members and those aspiring to work in your field?

Berger: The best opportunities here are getting involved in research with different people. In many classes, you could really learn a lot of the same things as if you had just picked up the books yourself. But the opportunity to work with professors and to actually interact with them is absolutely invaluable. I think you'll find that trying to do research together is going to end up being one of your most valuable opportunities here.

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