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, health and engineering sciences, and from practical field experience in business, government, and civil society. 

The Program supports initiatives in problem-driven research at the intersection of environment and development. Past work has included studies on water and human health (Michael Kremer, Economics), integrated use of land and water resources (N. Michele Holbrook, Biology) biofuels and globalization (Henry Lee, HKS) and knowledge systems for sustainability (William C. Clark, HKS). Current initiatives include:

Governance Innovations for Sustainable Development: Building Public-Private Partnerships in India
Rohini Pande, 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? This team uses rigorous field studies to examine how public-private partnerships can enable smart policy design and raise efficiency and compliance with environmental standards. It explores ways to reduce emissions at low cost using market-based mechanisms, such as adjusting the incentives of environmental auditors, increasing transparency, designing technologies to feed emissions readings directly to regulators, and designing emission trading systems. The team’s pilot project, designed to produce more accurate audit reports and lower pollution emissions, demonstrated that that it is having a real impact when Gujarat’s Pollution Control Authority approved environmental audit reforms in January 2015. The team’s highly cited article in Economic and Political Weekly estimates that 660 million people, over half of India’s population, live in areas that exceed air quality standards for fine particulate pollution; argues that reducing pollution in these areas to achieve the standard would increase life expectancy for these Indians by 3.2 years on average for a total of 2.1 billion life years; and outlines directions for environmental policy to begin achieving these gains. In July 2014 the team organized, “Economic Growth and Environmental Protection through Evidence-based Policy,” a policy dialogue held in Delhi that featured ongoing partnerships with India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Central Pollution Control Board, and three State Pollution Control Boards. 

Sustainable Development of the Energy Sector in China
Henry Lee, Laura Diaz Anadon, Venkatesh Narayanamurti
This Initiative is addressing the environmental implications of energy policies in China and the challenges posed by energy initiatives for environmental policy. Research is focused on the electric, transport, and industrial sectors, and analysis of the economic and administrative impacts of policies and technologies, including cap and trade, alternative fueled vehicles, investment incentives, renewable energy options, promotion of carbon capture and sequestration, and clean energy technology development and deployment. 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. The team’s publications include an article on how regional targets and improved market mechanisms could allow China’s carbon dioxide emissions to peak by 2030 in (Nature 2015) and an article on the water-carbon trade-off of China's coal power industry (ES&T 2014). A workshop was convened with colleagues at Tsinghua University in Beijing in June 2015 to discuss: government investments in energy R&D; the impact of policy on private sector innovation in energy; and the management of publicly funded R&D organizations. Plans are underway to hold a follow-up event in spring 2016.

Sustainable Development of the Amazon and its Surrounding Regions: The Interplay of Changing Climate, Hydrology, and Land Use
Paul Moorcroft
This team is studying the long-term sustainability of the Amazon’s water cycle and hydropower development in the context of global climate change and agricultural expansion in the region. The team is looking at the implications of these two agents of environmental change for planning hydropower development in the Tapajos River Basin, a region where many dams are being planned as part of the Brazilian Energy Expansion Plan. If seasonal water levels decline, as the team has forecast, electricity producers will need to draw power from coal-fired power plants rather than hydropower, causing higher greenhouse gas emissions than are forecast. The team held a workshop in November 2015 in Brasilia where they presented and discussed the implications of the research on hydropower development and agricultural expansion. The workshop was hosted by the Ministry of Environment, and included participants from Brazilian regulatory agencies – the National Water Agency, National Electricity Agency, Ministry of the Environment – and The World Bank, and The Nature Conservancy. 

Innovation and Access to Technologies for Sustainable Development 
William Clark [lead], Laura Diaz Anadon, Kira Matus, Suerie Moon
This initiative seeks to advance knowledge and understanding of how to equitably improve the functioning of the “global innovation system” for sustainable development technologies. The team carried out 18 case studies of how the current system functions to meet five sustainable development needs (food, energy, health, manufactured goods, and water). Based on these studies, the team is developing assessments of the efficacy of various “system interventions” (e.g., policy interventions, institutional innovations, new approaches to shaping the innovation process) intended to strengthen the global innovation system. The broader aim is to shape practical policy recommendations that draw from, and are generalizable across, multiple sectors. Preliminary results of the Initiative have been summarized in a working paper. Journal papers reporting final results are now being prepared focused on the following topics (1) the role of transnational actors, (2) a more comprehensive model of innovation, (3) the role of socio-technical characteristics, and (4) concrete implications for the role of policy to reorient innovation systems to contribute to sustainable development.

Fellows Program: Each year the Program brings to Harvard doctoral, post-doctoral, and mid-career fellows for a year 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. 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.

Outreach and Impact: Much of the research is being conducted jointly with national and state governments to directly address important policy questions. A list of conferences and workshops events sponsored by the program can be found here. To promote outreach that makes program results available to the policy community, we have also 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.

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.

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.

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

William C. 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 M. Dickson is a Senior Research Associate at the Kennedy School of Government and co-director of SSP. 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 led 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.

For more information visit https://www.hks.harvard.edu/mrcbg/sustsci