CIS turns 60: an interview with three directors

  • Spring 2011
May 1, 2011

In recognition of the Center's 60th anniversary, précis discussed the evolution of CIS with three of its directors: Richard Samuels, who currently directs CIS and began his directorship in 2000; Kenneth Oye, who directed CIS from 1992 to 2000; and Eugene Skolnikoff, who directed CIS from 1972 to 1987.

Richard Samuels
Richard Samuels is Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the Center for International Studies. He has been head of the MIT Political Science Department, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Japan of the National Research Council, and chair of the Japan-US Friendship Commission. He is the founding director of the MIT Japan Program. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. His most recent book, Securing Japan: Tokyo's Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia, was a finalist for the Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book in international affairs.
Kenneth A. Oye
Kenneth A. Oye holds a joint appointment as Associate Professor of Political Science and of Engineering Systems at MIT. After serving two terms as director of CIS, he formed a Political Economy and Technology Policy Program within the Center. His books include Economic Discrimination and Political Exchange, Cooperation Under Anarchy, and a four volume series on Carter, Reagan and Bush administration foreign policies. Oye is the recent recipient of the Levitan Teaching Prize in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.
Eugene Skolnikoff
Eugene Skolnikoff focused his career on science, public policy, and international affairs. He is an emeritus professor of political science at MIT, former head of that department, and former director of CIS. He was appointed by MIT in 1969 to help examine MIT's two special defense-oriented research laboratories. Skolnikoff later led a study of MIT's international posture when the Institute was criticized for its work with Japan. He served in the White House under presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Carter and is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

précis: What was the programmatic focus of CIS during your time at the helm? Did you start your directorship with a clear idea of how the Center would continue to develop? Have you been surprised by any of the directions that it’s taken?

RS: The only programmatic focus I thought appropriate was to provide the resources to faculty and let them drive their projects in the direction of their choosing. It's a very MIT approach to research, which is that it is faculty oriented. Very little at MIT that is top-down works. Not everything that is faculty driven succeeds, but it's a necessary condition for success. 

When we started, the associate director, Steve Van Evera, and I began by looking at the Center's terrific portfolio to see if there were any missing pieces. One of those missing pieces was human rights and justice, and so we seeded some work in that area. That has morphed in a variety of ways, into environmental and global studies and other projects. Another innovation was increased funding for graduate student research. We have funded a lot of graduate students to do field work and for summer support to work on their dissertations, and we have been very happy with our contribution there. But as a general matter, our approach is to help provide support for faculty and to let them run with their ideas because they know best.

KO: All CIS directors—past, present and future—seek to maintain existing areas of strength while fostering development of programs to address unmet needs. Eugene Skolnikoff sought to strengthen research on technology policy, building toward the School of Engineering and School of Science. Myron Weiner sought to strengthen programs on development issues, building a program on refugees and forced migration with faculty from Tufts, Boston University and Harvard. During my two terms as director (1992-2000), I sought to strengthen initiatives in those areas while setting up a new program on transnational security issues. The MacArthur Foundation funded work on religion and conflict, run by Steve Van Evera and J. Bryan Hehir and work on economic security issues, run by Dani Rodrik and me. The Japan Foundation, the Alliance for Global Sustainability, and NEDO supported research on technology policy and environmental issues. In subsequent years, NSF IGERT supported the CIS Program on Emerging Technologies, a research and training program. Currently, the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation supports CIS research on adaptive regulation of pharmaceuticals by EMA Medical Director and Wilhelm Fellow Hans-Georg Eichler, Lawrence McCray and me while NSF SynBERC supports the CIS Synthetic Biology Policy Group.

ES: Primarily I gave priority to how science and technology interacted with international affairs. That had been my primary focus of scholarship before becoming director, and it was a subject congenial to my interests. MIT was a logical and fertile ground, especially because of the faculty's willingness to deal with multidisciplinary issues. That was not all I tried to do, but it was what interested me most.

I did not start with a clear focus for I did not expect to become director. I was not the logical next director after Everett Hagen, but for a variety of MIT personnel reasons, I was asked to take over.


précis: What are the advantages and challenges of CIS being located in a technology school?

RS: MIT, or really any school that is science and technology focused, needs to have a high quality center for international studies. CIS is consistent with the goals and missions of the institute itself, which are to identify and tackle the world’s most pressing problems and come up with solutions. Walking through the lobby of Building 7 you quickly learn what MIT is all about—the generation and application of knowledge. And that is what the Center is about as well.

It’s no accident that we reinvented area studies at MIT. Area studies came of age after World War II in the United States, but MIT was the first to create applied area studies. Applied area studies means making sure that people in problem solving fields can work comfortably in foreign contexts, can speak foreign languages, and can generate a network of associates that is broader than the eastern seaboard as they build their careers.

Our attitude was that it’s not just political scientists, historians, and literature experts who need to know about the world, but also the engineers, architects, and managers who are going to be pursuing careers beyond 02139. It’s very important that they understand the context in which they are working. Not everybody solves problems in the same way in different parts of the world. So we invented this approach, and we now have the largest and most widely copied program of its kind, which is MISTI. This is an educational innovation of which we are very proud.

KO: The advantages? Barriers to research linking engineering and the sciences to the social sciences and humanities at MIT are low. The Program on Emerging Technologies originated as an NSF funded joint venture with Daniel Hastings, Frank Field and Dava Newman of Engineering Systems, and historian Merritt Roe Smith of STS. Retrospective studies on past emerging technologies inform prospective studies on implications of current emerging technologies. Our work on Synthetic Biology is in partnership with faculty and research staff in Biological Engineering and EECS. Our work on next generation Internet has been led by David Clark of CSAIL, and Nazli Choucri's Project Minerva has deepened that link and pushed work on cybersecurity to the next level. An earlier project on Chinese Coal Combustion was with Adel Sarofim and Janos Beer of Chemical Engineering and Tsinghua, Taiyuan, Tokyo and ETH Zurich. The extraordinary quality of technologists here at MIT was expected. The receptivity of world-class technologists to multidisciplinary collaboration was unexpected and welcome. The challenges? CIS is a relatively small actor within MIT. Understanding of our purposes, our questions and our methods in other parts of MIT may not be assumed.

ES: The faculty and administration in general are very supportive and show a lot of interest. Since I was Director, it is clear that MIT’s international focus has expanded enormously under the leadership of Dick Samuels and the Provost. It should be an exciting time now for the Institute.

précis: CIS is known for a strong emphasis on both theoretical and policy contributions in its programming, as well as an interdisciplinary approach. Generally speaking, how did these aspects of the Center impact its work during your tenure as director?

RS: CIS's interdisciplinary method does not stem from its management. Rather, it develops from the way in which we think about problems, which is in turn a consequence of the way the Institute is set up. At MIT, teaching is done in departments, but research is done in centers and labs, and those centers and labs are almost always interdisciplinary. CIS is no exception. For instance, we have reached out and worked very closely with colleagues in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Indeed, Urban Studies and Planning is a great example of applied area studies; it's in a school of architecture, and it's a problem solving discipline often with an international context. 

But as I mentioned earlier, these are also characteristics of political science at MIT. Being at MIT bestows on political science certain characteristics that make it distinctive—our policy focus, our empirical orientation, our penchant for taking on big theoretical questions. This is particularly true of security studies. Where else do you see this kind of work? Basically just at MIT. We have always done security studies here, and, alas, will always need to, because the problems of war and peace have not gone away.

KO: Most lively contemporary policy debates rest on dry-as-dust theoretical and empirical disputes. CIS takes pride in addressing unresolved foundational issues that underpin current policy debates, many of which require multidisciplinary research. In this respect, CIS differs from Washington think tanks that tend to reinforce conventional wisdoms of the moment and from academic departments that focus on disciplinary development without reference to policy. For example, as the Washington Consensus embraced globalization, Suzanne Berger, Ronald Dore, and Michael Piore combined institutional political economy, anthropology and economics in work that defended national diversity. As Japan, France and England moved toward commercialization of plutonium reprocessing, Eugene Skolnikoff, Tatsujiro Suzuki, and I conducted a study that questioned the safety, security and economic implications of commercialization of reprocessing. As support for humanitarian military intervention swelled, Steve Van Evera conducted historically informed theoretically rich studies that warned of the effects of intervention, while graduate student Kelly Greenhill's dissertation probed how refugee relief can contribute to ethnic conflict. Myron Weiner cut against received wisdoms of the 1990s with research on how democratization can exacerbate ethnic conflict and on the perverse effects of well-intentioned child labor policies. Barry Posen drew fire from conservatives for questioning claims of American military weakness and for attacking policies that eroded firebreaks between conventional and nuclear conflict, and then drew fire from liberals by challenging conventional wisdoms on expected high US casualties in advance of the first Gulf War. As President George H. W. Bush and the U.S. Army claimed that the Patriot missile was effective against Iraqi Scuds, Ted Postol and George Lewis conducted technical studies that showed that the system did not work and sparked political studies on the credible assessment of risks under conditions of controversy and uncertainty. CIS faculty, research staff and graduate students do not hesitate to follow the implications of their foundational research to controversial conclusions.

ES: I was much more interested in policy than theory, especially when subjects had to cross disciplinary boundaries. My impression is that the much closer ties (topographical and substantive) to Political Science may add more theoretical heft to the work of the Center.


précis: Where do you see the Center going in the next 60 years?

RS: I confess it's impossible to know, which is why we have to cleave tightly to our philosophy of problem-oriented social science. Where the problems are is where the Center will go, of that we can be sure. What those problems will be—not so much.

KO: I hope the essential qualities of CIS will not change. CIS should continue to offer cross-disciplinary research and training that sheds light on policy relevant theoretical and empirical issues. CIS scholars should continue to follow the implications of research even when it cuts against received wisdoms. It is my expectation that CIS will continue to provide a setting for rigorous and courageous scholars to sail against the prevailing winds.

ES: It is impossible to forecast the next 60 years, other than to note that the multidisciplinary issues now engaging the Center and the Institute as a whole can only become more central and more important to international affairs.