News Story

November 17, 2011

Re-Envisioning Engineering's Role in Energy and the Environment

Cherry A. Murray, who became dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 2009, was formerly a senior vice president for physical sciences and wireless research at Bell Laboratories and then an executive at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The Armstrong professor of engineering and applied sciences has broad experience working on real-world problems, including issues of national importance. She has participated in more than 80 national and international scientific advisory committees, governing boards, and National Research Council panels. Most recently, she served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Harvard University Center for the Environment director Daniel Schrag spoke with Murray in July.

Daniel Schrag: Let’s talk about energy and the environment. Last year, in addition to all of your decanal duties, you served on President Obama’s commission to look at what happened during the BP oil spill. Did that experience surprise you in any way or was it mostly what you expected?

Cherry Murray: Unlike most presidential commissions, which have a two-year life span, this one had a six-month time frame. So, it was an unexpected amount of work because we had to come up to speed extremely quickly. Furthermore, unlike the [space shuttle] Challenger Commission, for example, where the event happened, the commission was named, and then had basically two years to do its work, this oil spill was ongoing. While people were still experiencing this environmental disaster in slow motion, we witnessed, along with them, the issues that arose in the implementation of the Oil Spill Pollution Act of 1990, which was passed to address an event of national significance such as this. The emergency response plan that was written into the Oil Spill Pollution Act did not work effectively, and we experienced this in real time.

We also experienced a great deal of politics, partly because the event was still unfolding, and partly because in the five states that were affected by the spill, there are really three kinds of work for the populace: the first is tourism; the second is fishing; and the third is oil and gas production. Every family does all three. So it wasn’t a case of the environmentalist against the oil company-it was far more nuanced. And what I didn’t realize until getting involved in this was that the major politics were not driven directly by the big oil companies. Most of the jobs are due to the thousands or tens of thousands of smaller companies (contractors) that work with the big oil companies providing services like helicopter flights, for example.

The safety issues around deep-water drilling that stood out like a red flag turn out to be a lot harder than you might think to enforce. And they are complicated by the fact that there is not just one agency responsible—there are many.

Schrag: You mention the politics that you experienced. At the event that the Center for the Environment held last year in honor of the fortieth anniversary of the EPA, Bill Ruckelshaus, the agency’s first administrator (under President Richard Nixon) recalled how the Clean Air Act of 1970 passed unanimously
in the Senate.

We are clearly in a very different place politically with respect to energy and the environment at this time in this country. How does that affect your thinking about the academic program at Harvard in engineering for energy and the environment?

Murray: Energy and the Environment are intimately mixed, so any energy technology affects the environment and, I would say, vice versa. I actually think what we are doing and setting out to do at Harvard is exactly the right program, which is not just an engineering program, but is instead broadly interdisciplinary.

Technology alone is not going to solve the problems we have in feeding, clothing, serving and providing a middle-class lifestyle to seven billion people on Earth. How people live their lives is critically important. We need to have all the disciplines working together. The Harvard University Center for the Environment (which needs to be relabeled to having two “Es”—adding one for energy) is bringing all of these disciplines together. I think that is exactly what we need-it’s what the world needs.

Within the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), we have had a very strong program on atmospheric sciences and climate for a long time, which we need to maintain; it is quite important. But on the energy technology side, it is a more difficult challenge because it isn’t really just one field; it is multi-disciplinary and it is quite interdisciplinary.

Schrag: In some ways, Harvard is at a disadvantage because we don’t have an enormous engineering school. But SEAS’s manageable size means that it can bring greater coherence to tackling big problems. The school can be a place where material science and applied physics and bioengineering can come together in a way that they can’t at other places that have big walls between these disciplines.

Murray: That’s true. I also think, however, that we can be a place where policy, laws, governance of institutions, and technology can play together. That’s even harder in other places. There are major energy hubs in other places such as MIT, but I think our real strength is bringing science and engineering together with policy, social science, and the global reach that we have. I think of all our alumni networks: we know the President of Chile, for example, who happens to be a Harvard alum. I think that is profound.

I do believe, however, that we need to build a critical mass of people working on and interested in energy technologies. That means hiring more faculty members in this area. We already have quite an interest in the community.

Schrag: In the context of building schools, the classic view of Harvard is “Every tub on its own bottom.” You know the Center for the Environment (which we hope someday will be the Center for Energy and the Environment) works away from that model.

Murray: I think of “Every tub on its own bottom” as the University’s holding company model. So each little company, or school in the case of Harvard, can compete with its peers: the law school competes with law schools, business school with business schools, etc….That allows us an amazing amount of flexibility and I believe that has made us number one in every case except engineering. Engineering is the newest school. It hasn’t had the opportunity yet to compete the way the other schools have for hundreds of years. I would not want to lose that model. What I want to do—and I think this is the right thing for Harvard to do—is continue with that model but have the schools work even more closely together.

Schrag: The kind of collaboration we are trying to advance through the Center for the Environment.

Murray: That’s right. And, it’s working. The Center works effectively with deans to raise the level of intellectual excitement and engagement around the University, making Harvard a more vibrant place to be. Getting people to talk—English professors talking to post-docs who are working on energy technology—can actually be very profound. That would not happen in a typical academic environment.

Schrag: The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has already been incredibly important in starting the Graduate Consortium on Energy and the Environment. And you have been a fantastic partner in helping to advance the secondary field in energy and environment that we hope to launch this year. Can you talk a little bit about your thoughts about the undergraduate offerings and the role of engineering and applied sciences? Not just for our own students, who are concentrators, but for the broader group of undergraduates at Harvard?

Murray: I have a vision that every Harvard undergraduate will be touched in some way—either by a course, extracurricular activity, January term, or secondary field—with an understanding of engineering and technology, including energy and the environment.

This is important because we help to launch global leaders. For example, I recently met with the deans of engineering at the top schools in China. Of the twelve deans I met, three were Harvard graduates. That’s pretty impressive. And at another level, I think it is really critically important for global leaders—think of Al Gore ’69, and his early understanding of greenhouse gases that he learned about as a student here—to have a better understanding of science and technology.

I believe there are also some important affinities between engineering and leadership. I recently wrote a Crimson editorial arguing that we need more engineers in leadership positions. Engineers have to know how to solve problems. They have to be managers. That’s what leaders do, too. In essence, we need much broader understanding of what engineering is. In the Ivy League, engineering is exciting because it is rooted in a liberal-arts-based curriculum. I think that is the way engineering should be taught in the twenty-first century. Certainly that’s the way leaders should be taught. Giving them some exposure to the challenges of energy and environment will be essential for the world in the next century. It is one of the biggest challenges, if not the biggest challenge, of our time.

NOTE: This interview originally appeared in Environment@Harvard, Volume 3, Issue 2.

Research Areas: 

Harvard University
Center for the Environment

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