Sustainability Science Program

About Us

The Sustainability Science Program is the hub of Harvard’s research, teaching, and interventions on the challenges of sustainable development: fostering shared prosperity and reduced poverty while protecting the environment. The Program promotes the design of institutions, policies, and practices that support sustainable development by: advancing scientific understanding of human-environment systems; improving connections between research and policy communities; and building capacity for linking knowledge with action to promote sustainability. The Program’s approach is multidisciplinary, engaging people from the natural, social, medical and engineering sciences, and from practical field experience in business, government, and civil society.

The Program supports initiatives in policy-relevant research, training of students and fellows, teaching, and outreach. Past work has included studies on integrated use of land and water resources, biofuels and globalization, and knowledge systems for sustainability. Current initiatives include:

Problem-driven research at the intersection of environment and development:

Governance Innovations for Sustainable Development: Building Public-Private Partnerships in India
(Rohini Pande [lead], Michael Greenstone)
Environmental externalities from rapid growth, such as air and water pollution, arise from a joint failure of government and industry to create an economy where the most profitable action is also best socially. Can appropriately designed public-private partnerships promote sustainable development in India? The Initiative uses rigorous field studies, conducted in association with Indian regulators and industry partners, to examine how public-private partnerships can enable smart policy design and raise efficiency and compliance with environmental standards. Members of this initiative conduct field trials of innovative environmental policies with the goal of providing rigorous evidence on the effectiveness of these policies. For instance, recently completed work identifies improvements to third party environmental audit mechanisms and in ongoing work we examine how market-based emissions trading system, developed in partnership with India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests and regulatory bodies, can lower abatement costs and air pollutant emissions. This initiative continues the work of the Governance Innovations for Sustainable Development Initiative under Phase II of the Sustainability Science Program, but now moves forward with a targeted focus on India.

Sustainable Development of the Energy Sector in China
(Henry Lee [lead], Edward Cunningham, Laura Diaz Anadon, Venkatesh Narayanamurti)
This Initiative addresses the environmental implications of energy policies in China and the challenges posed by energy initiatives for environmental policy. Together with scholars from Tsinghua University and practitioners from China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, the National Development and Reform Commission, and the Development Research Center of the State Council, this initiative explores how China can manage these issues. China‘s economic growth has relied on a resource intensive strategy. It is now the largest consumer of energy and largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China’s cities suffer from severe air pollution and water resources are rapidly depleting. China has ambitious programs to improve energy productivity, increase the use of renewables, and revisit its use of market incentives to reduce water use and greenhouse gas emissions. China is actively exploring the feasibility of electrifying its transportation and commercial sectors in key population centers. Research focuses on promoting policies that contribute to the thoughtful use of China’s natural resources and the adoption of cleaner and less carbon intensive industrial and energy technologies.

Sustainable Development of the Amazon and its Surrounding Regions: The Interplay of Changing Climate, Hydrology, and Land Use (Paul Moorcroft [lead], John Briscoe)
This initiative examines the linkages between land use decisions in Brazil and their impacts on climate and water availability within the Amazon and surrounding regions. Agricultural expansion and other land use transformations are continuing in the Amazon and surrounding regions as global demand for food and biofuel increases and regional economies expand. Analyses indicate that the conversion of forest and cerrado ecosystems to pastureland and agricultural crops creates warmer and drier atmospheric conditions relative to conditions associated with native vegetation. In addition, human-induced climate change arising from increasing levels of greenhouse gases is also expected to push the region towards a warmer and drier state. This study will rigorously quantify the key sustainability thresholds for agricultural productivity and hydrologic functioning of the Amazon basin and surrounding regions under different land transformation and climate change scenarios.

Innovation and Access to Technologies for Sustainable Development
(William Clark [lead], Laura Diaz Anadon, Kira Matus, Suerie Moon)
Meeting sustainable development goals will require harnessing and maximizing the potential of technological innovation. Examples of such technologies include carbon capture and storage systems, more efficient irrigation methods, essential medicines, household water purification devices, and manufacturing processes that minimize waste and pollution. While some needed innovations can be fostered through existing public and private mechanisms at the national level, such efforts have proven inadequate to meet global sustainability goals, particularly with regard to meeting the needs of the world’s poorest, most vulnerable or marginalized in current and future generations. Too often, technologies are either not developed at all for lack of a sufficiently profitable market, or if developed, are not accessible or well-adapted to end-user needs. This initiative seeks to advance knowledge and understanding of how to equitably improve the functioning of the “global innovation system” for sustainable development technologies. We are conducting a comparative study of how well the system functions to meet five sustainable development needs (food, energy, health, manufactured goods, and water), with a special focus on equity and access. The initiative examines specific cases of “system interventions” (e.g., policy interventions, institutional innovations, new approaches to shaping the innovation process) intended to strengthen the global innovation system, with the broader aim of developing policy recommendations that draw from, and are generalizable across, multiple sectors. The findings will contribute to realizing the potential of science and technology to meet the most pressing sustainable development challenges.

Clean Water, Human Health, and Sustainable Development
(Michael Kremer [lead], Nava Ashraf, Matthew Jukes, Sendhil Mullainathan, Ryan Sheely)
This initiative seeks actionable solutions for making water a force for improved human health and well being in the development agenda. Research focuses on determining which of the many technical interventions designed to improve water quality most benefit the health of communities in developing countries. Activities include evaluating the efficacy of options to increase deployment and adoption of the most effective interventions, with special attention to the role of information, price signals, and property rights. The initiative is having a major policy impact and has leveraged supplemental resources. Chlorine dispensers are now serving more than 300,000 people in Kenya, Haiti, and Bangladesh. The initiative leveraged supplemental support, including grants from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to implement the dispensers project with four partner organizations.

Fellows Program (Nancy Dickson [lead], William Clark
Each year the Program brings to Harvard ~ 20 doctoral, post-doctoral, and mid-career fellows for a period of training and collaborative research. The fellows are selected through an international competition and provided with stipendiary support.  135 fellows from over 30 countries have participated since 2006. Our current cohort of 20 fellows includes 10 post-docs, 4 mid-careers fellows, and 6 doctoral fellows and has citizens from eight countries: Brazil, China, Columbi, India, Italy, South Korea, Switzerland, and the USA. In addition to general funds available to support this fellowship offering, special funding for the Giorgio Ruffolo Fellowships in Sustainability Science, is available to support citizens of Italy, Brazil, China, India or developing countries who are therefore especially encouraged to apply. The Program also funds Empedocle Maffia Fellowships for Italian citizens admitted to the Kennedy School’s masters programs.

Teaching: SSP leads a group of international partners in creating teaching materials on sustainability science. Our intent is to make these broadly available to the international community. Already published is a web-based reader of key articles in sustainability science. Work in progress includes an integrated text book on sustainability science and a sustainability science curriculum.

Leadership: SSP is led by program directors William Clark, Nancy Dickson, and Michael Kremer. The Steering Group also includes Rohini Pande, Henry Lee, and Paul Moorcroft.  The Advisory Group includes faculty from across the university.

Sponsorship: The Program’s core support is provided by a generous gift from Italy’s Ministry for Environment, Land and Sea. Additional project-specific funding comes from a variety of federal agencies, private foundations, and Harvard sources. The administrative home for the Program is the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Outreach and Impact: To promote outreach that makes program results available to the policy community, we have instituted the Executive Sessions on Grand Challenges of Sustainability, co-hosted by the Program and Venice International University. It brings together key scholars and decision makers from around the world for off-the-record discussions and identification of key research and action needs. Sessions held to date include: Food Security and Climate Change led by Profs. William Clark and Missy Holbrook (2010); Water and Human Well-Being led by Prof. Michael Kremer (2009); and Biofuels led by Prof. Henry Lee (2008). Most recently, The Governance Initiative was the focus of the 2012 San Servolo Workshop on Industrial Pollution, Regulation and Growth led by Prof. Rohini Pande. Held in May 2012 on San Servolo Island, Venice, the Workshop attracted leading experts from the fields of policy, science, and business for an intensive two-day session. The goal was to identify possibilities for innovative regulation of industrial pollution and share evaluation experiences on new innovations, especially on how the government can channel the enterprising potential of the private sector. Major themes that emerged from the sessions included the importance of high-quality data and monitoring, the idea that effective regulation requires multi-stakeholder engagement (government, civil society, and industry), the efficiency potential of market-based mechanisms, and the value in piloting and evaluating new innovations. Our flagship study on the randomized evaluation of a continuous emissions monitor and emission trading systems in India was the focus of one of the Workshop sessions.

Much of the research under the Governance Initiative is being conducted jointly with national and state governments in India to directly address important policy questions. The main project partners for the flagship emissions trading project are the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India and the State Pollution Control Boards in three Indian states. Most urban areas in India are out of compliance with national ambient air quality standards for particulate matter. This project designs a new regulatory regime to address this problem and measures the benefits in abatement costs due to increased flexibility of market-based regulation. The research team, by collecting data on plant characteristics and emissions and analyzing abatement costs, is providing direct input into the formation of the emissions trading system. In this project and the project on industrial energy efficiency, we engage with users by disseminating information to concerned industrial plants. For example, plants in the energy efficiency trial are receiving information on the composition of their energy consumption and how their efficiency compares to the performance of peer plants in the same sector. This is one of several ways in which the project will feed back information in order to encourage more efficient energy consumption.

Efforts to evaluate the provision of safe drinking water technologies in the developing world are having a major policy impact. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided a grant to the Innovations for Poverty Action for the scale up of the dispenser project to at least 1 million people and integrate dispensers into long-term programs and budgets, thus creating a replicable example for other potential implementing organizations. Multiple ministries within the Kenyan government have funded installation of dispensers, including local governments, the Ministry of Education and Water Services Boards. NGOs have been piloting the approach in Bangladesh, Swaziland, and Haiti.

The report, Toward a Science of Sustainability, emerged from a workshop co-led by Bill Clark and sponsored by the National Science Foundation that constitutes the first US-based effort in a decade to create a systematic, community-based evaluation of the state of the field of sustainability science and to identify research priorities.

Leaders of Sustainability Science Program initiatives:

William Clark is the Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development at the Kennedy School of Government and co-director of SSP.  He leads SSP’s Initiative on Innovation and Access to Technologies for Sustainable Development. His research focuses on linking science and technology to management and policy action for sustainability.

Nancy Dickson is a Senior Researcher at the Kennedy School of Government and co-director of SSP. She manages the Sustainability Science Fellows Program. Her work focuses on understanding how the choice of institutions and procedures for linking practitioners and experts influences knowledge production and its effects.

N. Michele Holbrook is Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. She led SSP’s Initiative on Integrated Use of Land and Water Resources. Her research focuses on the productivity of plants under drought, adaptations used by plants to obtain and transport water, and the interactions of nutrient and water uptake.

Michael Kremer is the Gates Professor of Developing Societies in the Department of Economics and co-director of SSP. He leads SSP’s Clean Water, Human Health, and Sustainable Development Initiative. His research examines health and education in developing countries using randomized evaluation of public policy interventions to rigorously evaluate government and NGO activities and their impact.

Henry Lee is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and the Jassim Jaidah Family Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the Kennedy School of Government. He leads SSP’s Initiative on Sustainable Development of the Energy Sector in China and Biofuels and Globalization. His work focuses on energy policy, transportation, and public infrastructure projects in developing countries.

Paul Moorcroft is Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. He leads SSP’s Initiative on Sustainable Development of the Amazon and its Surrounding Regions: The Interplay of Changing Climate, Hydrology, and Land Use.  His work aims to predict how land-cover along with changes in climate will affect the composition, structure, and functioning of the Amazonian ecosystem over the next century.

Rohini Pande is the Mohammed Kamal Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government where she co-directs the Evidence for Policy Design Program. She leads SSP’s Initiative on Governance Innovations for Sustainable Development: Building Public-Private Partnerships in India. Her research examines how the design of democratic institutions and government regulation affects policy outcomes and citizen well-being.

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