• Fall 2023 ∕  Winter 2024
FALL 2023/WINTER 2024 :: précis Briefings
MIT-Ukraine Program provides sanctuary to at-risk scholars; Foreign policy scholars examine the China-Russia relationship; Magnifying research impact with policymakers; Global Seed Funds help faculty collaborate and innovate around the world; Who will benefit from AI?; In memory of Lawrence McCray
February 1, 2024

MIT-Ukraine Program provides sanctuary to at-risk scholars 

The Center is thrilled to announce the Global MIT At-Risk Fellows (GMAF) program that is designed to provide sanctuary to scholars around the globe. The program offers educational and research experiences to at-risk university faculty and researchers by introducing them to MIT campus methods and strategies in their areas of specialty. GMAF is sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for International Activities.

The new program is being piloted by the MIT-Ukraine Program at the Center for International Studies.The GMAF pilot program will focus on Ukrainian researchers and faculty with current or recent affiliations at Ukrainian universities or the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. These scholars may currently be residing in Ukraine (with eligibility to leave the country) or be living outside the country since the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022.  

 “It is an honor to be able to support Ukrainian scholarship and science in this way, and we are very much looking forward to welcoming the fellows on MIT campus in February 2024.  We are focusing our program on the fields that are at the juncture of Ukraine’s practical challenges and MIT’s expertise in hopes that our fellows will utilize the knowledge and collaborative networks they attain during their MIT visit for supporting Ukraine through their teaching and research upon return,” said Svitlana Krasynska, PhD, who is the managing director of the Center's MIT-Ukraine Program. 

“We believe that MIT has rich expertise in a wide range of fields that can directly benefit Ukrainian researchers and scholars. They can then take back to their home country what they have learned in their four months at MIT,” said Elizabeth Wood, faculty director of the MIT-Ukraine Program and professor of history at MIT. 

To celebrate the GMAF and welcome our new Ukrainian fellows, the Office of the Vice Provost for International Activities and the Center for International Studies will be hosting a reception and exhibit on February 29th, 3 – 4:30 PM, at the MIT Building E15, Lower Atrium. Opening remarks for the reception on February 29th will be brief and will touch on multiple themes, including the Institute’s long history of being a home for refugee scholars. Our speakers include Cynthia Barnhart, MIT provost; Elizabeth Wood, professor of history and faculty lead of the GMAF pilot program; and Pascale Laborier, a French political scientist who co-developed the exhibit. Suzanne Berger, MIT Institute Professor, will be serving as moderator.

The program ties into the theme of the exhibit: “Standing for freedom, portraits of scientists in exile,” which includes portraits of scholars in exile from around the world. The exhibit highlights the work of the French organization PAUSE, which enables scientists in exile to carry out their work in French higher education and research institutions. The exhibit will then be on public display for the entire month of April at the Koch Institute’s gallery and widely advertised. Its installation at MIT will be its first showing in the United States! It will then travel to Washington, DC, to be installed and hosted by the French Embassy. 

We invite you to join us on February 29th! Please RSVP here by Thursday, February 22, 2024.


Foreign policy scholars examine the China-Russia relationship

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What is the nature of the relationship between China and Russia today, and how extensively will the two countries keep cooperating in the future? It is a leading question of international relations.

A public panel discussion at MIT offered some answers, with foreign-policy scholars offering that China and Russia do not really have an “alliance” in a traditional sense, although they maintain a durable alignment based on not merely convenience but also some deeper common interests and perspectives.

“The partnership with Russia is big priority for China despite the fallout for certain foreign policy goals from the war in Ukraine, and that’s because there’s a certain amount of interdependence between China and Russia, shared goals, despite differences in many areas,” said Elizabeth Wishnick, an expert in Chinese foreign policy. “The limits to the partnership have always been apparent, but sometimes I think we underestimate its staying power.”

Those shared goals are apparent for both parties, including from the Russian point of view, as the panelists emphasized.

“Ultimately this certainly is not just a transactional relationship; it’s a relationship that’s been evolving for quite some time,” said Natasha Kuhrt, a scholar specializing in Russian foreign policy and security.

The question of how world powers engage and align themselves is certainly topical. Among other things, China has remained neutral about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while in the US, the Biden administration has adamantly opposed the invasion.

The event, titled, “A permanent partnership? How Xi and Putin are shaping a turbulent world,” was held online as part of MIT’s Starr Forum series, an ongoing series of public discussions about pressing international matters. 

The event was moderated by Carol Saivetz, a senior fellow in the MIT Security Studies Program and an expert on Soviet and Russian foreign policy.

This article was revised with permission from a previously published article in MIT News.


Magnifying research impact with policymakers

The MIT Policy Lab at the Center for International Studies works with researchers across the Institute to develop and enhance connections between the worlds of academia and public policy. Led by Associate Professor Chappell Lawson, who serves as faculty director, and Drew Story, who serves as managing director, the MIT Policy Lab has supported over 110 policy impact projects to date. In this Q&A, Story discusses the purpose and motivations of the lab, its current projects, and his vision for leveraging MIT expertise beyond academia. 

Q: What is the Policy Lab and what do you do?

A: The Policy Lab is an impact magnifier for MIT researchers. When scholars want to see their work have an impact on public policy, we empower and support them to do just that. We scour MIT for policy-relevant research, work with researchers to develop policy impact plans, train researchers how to be useful to policymakers, and provide modest funding to facilitate engagement. I’m here to lower the barrier of entry into the world of policy and to reduce the friction in the hand-off from academic to policymaker.

Q: What was the original impetus to launch the Policy Lab at MIT?

A: To put it simply, policymakers aren’t reading academic articles. This means that, regardless of how impressive or transformative your work is in your field, your Nature paper, your JACS paper, your American Economic Review paper aren’t being discussed in city halls or in the halls of Congress. And for their part, researchers are typically not equipped with the training, the resources, or the institutional incentives to engage with policymakers. Nobody gets tenure because 15 mayors across the country implemented their recommendations for how to optimize traffic lights for less congestion and fewer accidents, though the people in those cities would certainly thank them. You can’t blame academics for chasing the metrics by which they are evaluated for tenure and promotion: papers, citations, grant dollars won, students graduated, patents, etc. But this has led to a chasm between academics and policymakers, so the Policy Lab was created to build a bridge across that chasm.

Q: How does the Policy Lab complement the work of the MIT Washington Office?

A: We work closely with the Washington Office, but our emphases and the resources we each offer to researchers are different. The Policy Lab engages with policymakers in any domain while the Washington Office is focused exclusively on the federal government. The Policy Lab works with PIs to proactively share their expertise or consider public policy implications in the design of research projects, while the Washington Office tends to contact individual faculty when the White House, a federal agency, or Congress has expressed an interest in a research area. The Policy Lab excels at working closely with individuals or small teams for six months to a year or more, while the Washington Office often brings together larger groups of faculty for shorter-term efforts to advocate for or advise on policy.

Q: How does the Policy Lab compare with similar offerings at other institutions?

A: Many other universities and scientific societies are trying to fill in these gaps as well. Some universities have policy centers devoted to certain topics, some universities have professional development programming to prepare a handful of researchers to engage in policy, and others have a traditional school of public policy. Beyond campuses, scientific societies try to inject researchers into the policy process via year-long fellowships. But no one (that I know of) has a model like the MIT Policy Lab, with dedicated staff, proactive and reactive capabilities, modular and customizable support for researchers, and an approach inclusive of all research disciplines and all policy domains.

Q: What are some of your current projects?

A: We’ve got an impressive array of projects right now: several in the realm of climate change policy, a project on restoring and improving supply chains in the wake of natural disasters, a project on childhood education in Haiti, a project on the environmental impacts of deep seabed mining, among others. Descriptions of our current and previous projects are all available on our website.

Q: How does your background inform your vision for the Policy Lab?

A: I’m an educator/PhD engineer with policy experience at different levels, who truly believes academia owes more to taxpayers than we’re currently giving them for their investment in our research. And this is not too different from the MIT mission statement that references serving the nation and the world, and bringing knowledge to bear on the world’s greatest challenges.

The vision for the Policy Lab is to deliver a return to society by getting MIT’s research and expertise into the hands of decision-makers around the country and around the world who are in positions to use it. Ideally, the Policy Lab would help enough PIs magnify the impact of their research that it prompts discussions within the Institute of how to improve the incentive structure of promotion and tenure to reward this type of real-world impact of research. But if the Policy Lab is going to serve all researchers at MIT, we will need to grow. Right now, 12 year-long projects are a full load for me. It would be incredible to grow enough to have a Policy Lab manager devoted to each school and the college.

Q: How can individuals at MIT take advantage of Policy Lab resources?

A: Anyone at MIT with PI status can submit a proposal for a Policy Lab project at any time. I’m more than happy to sit down and discuss policy engagement ideas with interested researchers, pre-proposal as well. Aside from formal projects, the Policy Lab runs research-to-policy workshops over IAP [Independent Activities Period] for anyone in the MIT community and has an online course on MITx available for anyone around the globe.

Global Seed Funds help faculty collaborate and innovate around the world

Since its inception in 2008, the Global Seed Fund (GSF) program has made international research partnerships possible by enabling access to resources and perspectives that reach beyond the MIT campus. The GSF comprises a general fund that can be applied to any country, as well as a number of country, region, and university-specific funds.

"The collaboration has been a huge success," explains assistant professor of materials science and engineering Rafael Gomez-Bombarelli, who was a 2017 MIT-Spain INDITEX Sustainability Seed Fund awardee. "We have published a half dozen papers, including a Science article in 2021, and received a couple of patents. Furthermore, we have received funding from Deshpande [Center for Technological Innovation] to explore company creation in this space.”

During the 2022-23 GSF funding cycle, 168 proposals were submitted, reflecting the widespread enthusiasm and commitment of faculty and research scientists across the Institute. Ultimately, 91 projects were selected, awarding over $2.1 million in funding. Last year's awards further solidify GSF's track record of support, as the program has funded 1,204 projects amounting to $24.7 million over its 15-year lifespan.

The 2023-2024 cycle received  227 proposals, totaling $6.29 million in requested funds. The awardees for this term will be announced in spring of 2024. The current call included new funds in Armenia, Brazil, India, and Norway. The awardees for this term will be announced in spring of 2024. 

The GSF program plays a pivotal role in establishing rewarding connections between MIT and other leading research institutions worldwide. These partnerships often transcend the initial project and lead to ongoing collaborations, tackling critical challenges that necessitate international solutions. The research outcomes of seed fund projects frequently culminate in published papers. At the same time, early results leverage additional funding opportunities and attract industry partners, further accelerating the impact of the research. The GSF program serves as a stepping stone for long-term collaborations and opens doors for future joint projects, strengthening the global innovation and knowledge exchange network.

The program also provides students with significant educational opportunities. With the majority of GSF teams including students, the program contributes to MIT's educational mission and promotes intercultural learning. Students actively engage in cutting-edge research, gaining valuable skills and contributing to groundbreaking discoveries. Their involvement extends beyond laboratory experiences and enhances their understanding of global challenges, ultimately shaping their future careers.

GSF is open to all MIT faculty members and research staff with principal investigator privileges (principal research scientists and senior research scientists). For more information, visit the web site or contact


Who will benefit from AI?

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What if we’ve been thinking about artificial intelligence the wrong way?

After all, AI is often discussed as something that could replicate human intelligence and replace human work. But there is an alternate future: one in which AI provides “machine usefulness” for human workers, augmenting but not usurping jobs, while helping to create productivity gains and spread prosperity.

That would be a fairly rosy scenario. However, as MIT economist Daron Acemoglu emphasized in a public campus lecture, society has started to move in a different direction — one in which AI replaces jobs and ratchets up societal surveillance, and in the process reinforces economic inequality while concentrating political power further in the hands of the ultra-wealthy.

“There are transformative and very consequential choices ahead of us,” warned Acemoglu, Institute Professor at MIT, who has spent years studying the impact of automation on jobs and society.

Major innovations, Acemoglu suggested, are almost always bound up with matters of societal power and control, especially those involving automation. Technology generally helps society increase productivity; the question is how narrowly or widely those economic benefits are shared. When it comes to AI, he observed, these questions matter acutely “because there are so many different directions in which these technologies can be developed. It is quite possible they could bring broad-based benefits — or they might actually enrich and empower a very narrow elite.”

But when innovations augment rather than replace workers’ tasks, he noted, it creates conditions in which prosperity can spread to the work force itself.

“The objective is not to make machines intelligent in and of themselves, but more and more useful to humans,” said Acemoglu, speaking to a near-capacity audience of almost 300 people in Wong Auditorium.

The productivity bandwagon

The Starr Forum was hosted by Evan Lieberman, director of CIS and the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa.

Acemoglu’s talk drew on themes detailed in his book “Power and Progress: Our 1000-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity,” which was co-written with Simon Johnson and published in May by PublicAffairs. Johnson is the Ronald A Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Acemoglu discussed some famous historical examples to make the point that the widespread benefits of new technology cannot be assumed, but are conditional on how technology is implemented.

Acemoglu’s talk drew on themes detailed in his book “Power and Progress: Our 1000-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity,” which was co-written with Simon Johnson and published in May by PublicAffairs. Johnson is the Ronald A Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

It took at least 100 years after the 18th-century onset of the Industrial Revolution, Acemoglu noted, for the productivity gains of industrialization to be widely shared. At first, real earnings did not rise, working hours increased by 20 percent, and labor conditions worsened as factory textile workers lost much of the autonomy they had held as independent weavers.

Similarly, Acemoglu observed, Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin made the conditions of slavery in the US even worse. That overall dynamic, in which innovation can potentially enrich a few at the expense of the many, Acemoglu said, has not vanished.

“We’re not saying that this time is different,” Acemoglu said. “This time is very similar to what went on in the past. There has always been this tension about who controls technology and whether the gains from technology are going to be widely shared.”

To be sure, he noted, there are many, many ways society has ultimately benefited from technologies. But it’s not something we can take for granted.

“Yes indeed, we are immeasurably more prosperous, healthier, and more comfortable today than people were 300 years ago,” Acemoglu said. “But again, there was nothing automatic about it, and the path to that improvement was circuitous.”

Ultimately what society must aim for, Acemoglu said, is what he and Johnson term “The Productivity Bandwagon” in their book. That is the condition in which technological innovation is adapted to help workers, not replace them, spreading economic growth more widely. In this way, productivity growth is accompanied by shared prosperity.

“The Productivity Bandwagon is not a force of nature that applies under all circumstances automatically, and with great force, but it is something that’s conditional on the nature of technology and how production is organized and the gains are shared,” Acemoglu said.

Crucially, he added, this “double process” of innovation involves one more thing: a significant amount of worker power, something which has eroded in recent decades in many places, including the US.

That erosion of worker power, he acknowledged, has made it less likely that multifaceted technologies will be used in ways that help the labor force. Still, Acemoglu noted, there is a healthy tradition within the ranks of technologists, including innovators such as Norbert Wiener and Douglas Engelbart, to “make machines more usable, or more useful to humans, and AI could pursue that path.”

Conversely, Acemoglu noted, “There is every danger that overemphasizing automation is not going to get you many productivity gains either,” since some technologies may be merely cheaper than human workers, not more productive.

Icarus and us

The event included a commentary from Fotini Christia, the Ford International Professor of the Social Sciences and director of the MIT Sociotechnical Systems Research Center. Christia offered that “Power and Progress” was “a tremendous book about the forces of technology and how to channel them for the greater good.” She also noted “how prevalent these themes have been even going back to ancient times,” referring to Greek myths involving Daedalus, Icarus, and Prometheus.

Acemoglu suggested it is still to be determined how greater worker power can be obtained, and noted that workers themselves should help suggest productive uses for AI. 

Additionally, Christia raised a series of pressing questions about the themes of Acemoglu’s talk, including whether the advent of AI represented a more concerning set of problems than previous episodes of technological advancement, many of which ultimately helped many people; which people in society have the most ability and responsibility to help produce changes; and whether AI might have a different impact on developing countries in the Global South.

In an extensive audience question-and-answer session, Acemoglu fielded over a dozen questions, many of them about the distribution of earnings, global inequality, and how workers might organize themselves to have a say in the implementation of AI.

Broadly, Acemoglu suggested it is still to be determined how greater worker power can be obtained, and noted that workers themselves should help suggest productive uses for AI. At multiple points, he noted that workers cannot just protest circumstances, but must also pursue policy changes as well — if possible.

Acemoglu warned, if private companies or central governments anywhere in the world amass more and more information about people, it is likely to have negative consequences for most of the population.

“There is some degree of optimism in saying we can actually redirect technology and that it’s a social choice,” Acemoglu acknowledged.

Acemoglu also suggested that countries in the global South were also vulnerable to the potential effects of AI, in a few ways. For one thing, he noted, as the work of MIT economist Martin Beraja shows, China has been exporting AI surveillance technologies to governments in many developing countries. For another, he noted, countries that have made overall economic progress by employing more of their citizens in low-wage industries might find labor force participation being undercut by AI developments.

Separately, Acemoglu warned, if private companies or central governments anywhere in the world amass more and more information about people, it is likely to have negative consequences for most of the population.

“As long as that information can be used without any constraints, it’s going to be antidemocratic and it’s going to be inequality-inducing,” he said. “There is every danger that AI, if it goes down the automation path, could be a highly unequalizing technology around the world.

This article was revised with permission from a previously published article in MIT News.


In memory of Lawrence McCray

Lawrence McCray, a former research affiliate at the Center for International Studies, passed away on December 26, 2023. An expert in science policy, McCray was a founder of the Program on Emerging Technologies and mentored many MIT graduate students during his time at CIS. Below are remembrances from some of his colleagues. 

Throughout his life, McCray took paths less traveled. After studying engineering and English literature as an undergraduate, McCray chose to pursue a doctorate in political science at MIT, which he completed in 1974. After being awarded the APSA EE Schattschneider Prize for the best dissertation in American government and politics, McCray chose to pursue a career of public service. After establishing himself at the White House and EPA and following retirement from his distinguished career at the National Academy of Sciences, McCray and his wife Alexa T McCray chose to move back to Boston, where they had spent their early married years. After becoming a ranked medieval court tennis player and leading SABR’s work on the origins of baseball, McCray spent countless hours advising political science and engineering students on their research papers and doctoral dissertations.  

To appreciate McCray requires understanding these unusual choices. His extraordinary generosity, curiosity, and commitment to improving public policy were fundamental aspects of his character. 

Most political scientists receiving APSA national dissertation awards become academics. McCray was not content with merely explaining dysfunctionality in public policy. He went to Washington to improve public policy, as director of regulatory reform at EPA, as director of the US Regulatory Council at OMB, and as founding director of the policy division of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

At the National Research Council, McCray oversaw the production of many committee and panel reports. Risk Assessment in the Federal Government (1983) was a personal favorite. Known as the Red Book, the study became the go-to work on how government agencies should evaluate risks associated with chemical exposures, water and air pollution and other hazards.

McCray was directly engaged with writing Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming: Mitigation, Adaptation and the Science Base (1991). Thirty years after publication, the report’s analysis of benefits and risks of policies ranging from reductions in CO2 emissions to geo-engineering through solar radiative management remain spot on. 

His staff at the Policy Division produced many other studies, some accepted and some ignored. With great sadness, McCray noted that the recommendations of a study on the Challenger disaster that could have prevented the Columbia disaster were ignored. Disappointments notwithstanding, McCray lived his dream with his critically important work on improving public policies. 

McCray’s generosity, humility and intense curiosity were hallmarks of his return to MIT. He came back to Boston when his wife Alexa left NIH for a faculty position in Biomedical Informatics at the Harvard Medical School. McCray’s devotion to family was manifest.

McCray’s generosity, humility and intense curiosity were hallmarks of his return to MIT. 

McCray was also a compassionate advisor to MIT graduate students, bringing to the Center for International Studies the critical skills and supportive approach to oversight that he had honed while overseeing research staff at the National Research Council. McCray advised generations of students in Science, Technology and Public Policy as they wrote papers on forecasting and on planned adaptation, and McCray worked with many political science doctoral students on their dissertations. His ability to hold students to high standards while building their confidence was remarkable.

McCray applied extremely high standards to his own work, with unstinting criticisms of the quality of his own arguments and evidence on planned adaptation. McCray brought to his work the curiosity and tastes of a good historian. He recognized messiness and complexity in the world, he was suspicious of studies where arguments and evidence meshed perfectly, and he recognized path dependency and inertia as powerful forces in human affairs. These elements may have played some role in his peculiar choice of avocations. His devotion to mastering medieval court tennis and to probing the evolution of the rules of precursors to modern baseball are in keeping with his intellectual tastes.

McCray’s ability to work across disciplinary lines was much in evidence as a founder of the NSF supported Program on Emerging Technologies. He was the critical link joining historian Merritt Roe Smith, aeronautical engineers Dava Newman and Daniel Hastings, biological engineer Drew Endy, CSAIL senior scientist David Clark, and political scientist Kenneth Oye. All of us will miss his wry humor, his brilliance and his friendship.