My Utopia Institute is all about impact and interdisciplinarity

We need to encourage and support scientists to leap into the unknown to solve our grand challenges faster and more equitably, says Xiangkun Cao

十月 1, 2023
A poor boy finds a plastic bottle in a landfill site
Source: iStock/Tinnakorn Jorruang

During my childhood in rural China in the late 1990s, my grandma and I secretly worked as trash pickers. With the money from selling the bottles we found in landfills, my grandma bought food and supported my education. I also encountered the outside world through this experience since some of the trash had been redirected from the West.

A quarter of a century later, I am a Schmidt Science Fellow in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s department of chemical engineering, where some of my colleagues work on technologies to upcycle plastic waste. I now understand that the export of Western trash to China was a manifestation of environmental injustice. I also understand that plastic waste recycling is not the only climate and sustainability challenge that is just too complex to be solved by engineers alone.

Yet for all the lip service paid to the importance of interdisciplinarity, the boundaries between disciplines remain stubbornly strong. When I switched from mechanical engineering, in which I did my PhD, to chemical engineering in my Schmidt placement, I witnessed first-hand the clear boundaries that still exist even between adjacent engineering disciplines – never mind between engineering and social sciences.

To date, I still struggle to define my own research identity, but I’m fortunate that the Schmidt programme is willing to bet on my interdisciplinary vision of carbon dioxide removal and conversion at the interface of technology, business and policy. As well as developing the technologies, I study pathways to achieving just, accountable and equitable outcomes for local communities and emerging economies during their deployment. Being part of a community that values interdisciplinary research has helped me build up my confidence during my pivot.

I was lucky, but more work needs to be done to support interdisciplinary researchers more generally. The lack of funding, incentives and community support holds back the scientific breakthroughs they could otherwise be making.

My ideal research institute – the Utopia Institute of Climate and Sustainability (“the Institute”) – eliminates all barriers to interdisciplinary work. First, it rethinks incentives by creating novel hiring, evaluation and promotion metrics that get beyond the traditional reliance on disciplinary metrics such as publication output in certain outlets. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has already suggested that non-traditional outputs, such as software and datasets, could be included in measurements of achievement.

The Institute would go further, working alongside other institutions in the ecosystem (such as Columbia Climate School, Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute and Tsinghua University’s Institute for Carbon Neutrality) to define holistic approaches for measuring impact. Contributions to be credited could include inputs into local sustainability transition plans, inclusion of a study’s results in sustainability policy, or successful commercial translation.

The Institute also recognises the challenge of measuring interdisciplinary research in climate and sustainability and does all it can to meet that challenge.

In addition, the Institute adopts an innovative funding mechanism to support and encourage interdisciplinary researchers, especially those early in their careers. Traditional funding systems are usually discipline-bound because grant proposals are typically reviewed by experts from single fields. There is now increased funding to support collaborative interdisciplinary efforts, but there is still a gap in supporting single-investigator-led interdisciplinary research.

The Institute supports individual researchers to think outside their disciplines, learning new tools to solve a problem in their “home” discipline or bringing their existing expertise to solve new problems in another field. As well as supporting researchers at later career stages to pivot to new disciplines to make a greater impact, the Institute is particularly keen to encourage younger researchers to obtain a broad knowledge of various scientific disciplines.

Like the Schmidt programme, it has an academic council to mentor junior scientists in navigating the high-risk exploratory stage. The council consists of high-profile interdisciplinary scientists, and mentorship topics include navigating technology transfer, managing a productive team and building a scientific identity with an interdisciplinary background.

Also crucial is a diversity, equity and inclusion division, consisting of multiple stakeholders within a steering committee, to advise on funding allocation, hiring, evaluation and promotion processes. The DEI committee also examines the greater impact of all funded research projects on their local communities and the implications for other developing countries.

My grandma saw the plastic bottles she collected from landfills as treasures. However, millions of tonnes of plastic trash exported from developed countries to emerging economies are still landfilled, burned or simply dumped in the environment. In 2018, China banned plastic waste imports, but the West did not stop exporting its trash; some countries simply redirected it elsewhere, sometimes illegally.

We need to encourage and support scientists to be bolder: to leap into the unknown to solve our grand challenges faster. But we also need to ensure that we achieve true environmental justice so that no one is excluded from benefiting from the solutions.

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao is a Schmidt Science Fellow in the department of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



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Reader's comments (1)

I have no problem with lots of research with impact, but let's not forget that universities are not think tanks for higher. They should also be doing more to encourage pure research. Instead, the promotion criteria at most institutes very strongly disadvantage pure research.