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    The reasons behind lithium-ion batteries’ rapid cost decline

    Lithium-ion batteries, those marvels of lightweight power that have made possible today’s age of handheld electronics and electric vehicles, have plunged in cost since their introduction three decades ago at a rate similar to the drop in solar panel prices, as documented by a study published last March. But what brought about such an astonishing cost decline, of about 97 percent?

    Some of the researchers behind that earlier study have now analyzed what accounted for the extraordinary savings. They found that by far the biggest factor was work on research and development, particularly in chemistry and materials science. This outweighed the gains achieved through economies of scale, though that turned out to be the second-largest category of reductions.

    The new findings are being published today in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, in a paper by MIT postdoc Micah Ziegler, recent graduate student Juhyun Song PhD ’19, and Jessika Trancik, a professor in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society.

    The findings could be useful for policymakers and planners to help guide spending priorities in order to continue the pathway toward ever-lower costs for this and other crucial energy storage technologies, according to Trancik. Their work suggests that there is still considerable room for further improvement in electrochemical battery technologies, she says.

    The analysis required digging through a variety of sources, since much of the relevant information consists of closely held proprietary business data. “The data collection effort was extensive,” Ziegler says. “We looked at academic articles, industry and government reports, press releases, and specification sheets. We even looked at some legal filings that came out. We had to piece together data from many different sources to get a sense of what was happening.” He says they collected “about 15,000 qualitative and quantitative data points, across 1,000 individual records from approximately 280 references.”

    Data from the earliest times are hardest to access and can have the greatest uncertainties, Trancik says, but by comparing different data sources from the same period they have attempted to account for these uncertainties.

    Overall, she says, “we estimate that the majority of the cost decline, more than 50 percent, came from research-and-development-related activities.” That included both private sector and government-funded research and development, and “the vast majority” of that cost decline within that R&D category came from chemistry and materials research.

    That was an interesting finding, she says, because “there were so many variables that people were working on through very different kinds of efforts,” including the design of the battery cells themselves, their manufacturing systems, supply chains, and so on. “The cost improvement emerged from a diverse set of efforts and many people, and not from the work of only a few individuals.”

    The findings about the importance of investment in R&D were especially significant, Ziegler says, because much of this investment happened after lithium-ion battery technology was commercialized, a stage at which some analysts thought the research contribution would become less significant. Over roughly a 20-year period starting five years after the batteries’ introduction in the early 1990s, he says, “most of the cost reduction still came from R&D. The R&D contribution didn’t end when commercialization began. In fact, it was still the biggest contributor to cost reduction.”

    The study took advantage of an analytical approach that Trancik and her team initially developed to analyze the similarly precipitous drop in costs of silicon solar panels over the last few decades. They also applied the approach to understand the rising costs of nuclear energy. “This is really getting at the fundamental mechanisms of technological change,” she says. “And we can also develop these models looking forward in time, which allows us to uncover the levers that people could use to improve the technology in the future.”

    One advantage of the methodology Trancik and her colleagues have developed, she says, is that it helps to sort out the relative importance of different factors when many variables are changing all at once, which typically happens as a technology improves. “It’s not simply adding up the cost effects of these variables,” she says, “because many of these variables affect many different cost components. There’s this kind of intricate web of dependencies.” But the team’s methodology makes it possible to “look at how that overall cost change can be attributed to those variables, by essentially mapping out that network of dependencies,” she says.

    This can help provide guidance on public spending, private investments, and other incentives. “What are all the things that different decision makers could do?” she asks. “What decisions do they have agency over so that they could improve the technology, which is important in the case of low-carbon technologies, where we’re looking for solutions to climate change and we have limited time and limited resources? The new approach allows us to potentially be a bit more intentional about where we make those investments of time and money.”

    “This paper collects data available in a systematic way to determine changes in the cost components of lithium-ion batteries between 1990-1995 and 2010-2015,” says Laura Diaz Anadon, a professor of climate change policy at Cambridge University, who was not connected to this research. “This period was an important one in the history of the technology, and understanding the evolution of cost components lays the groundwork for future work on mechanisms and could help inform research efforts in other types of batteries.”

    The research was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the MIT Technology and Policy Program. More

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    At UN climate change conference, trying to “keep 1.5 alive”

    After a one-year delay caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, negotiators from nearly 200 countries met this month in Glasgow, Scotland, at COP26, the United Nations climate change conference, to hammer out a new global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for climate impacts. A delegation of approximately 20 faculty, staff, and students from MIT was on hand to observe the negotiations, share and conduct research, and launch new initiatives.

    On Saturday, Nov. 13, following two weeks of negotiations in the cavernous Scottish Events Campus, countries’ representatives agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact. The pact reaffirms the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement “to pursue efforts” to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and recognizes that achieving this goal requires “reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century.”

    “On issues like the need to reach net-zero emissions, reduce methane pollution, move beyond coal power, and tighten carbon accounting rules, the Glasgow pact represents some meaningful progress, but we still have so much work to do,” says Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, who led the Institute’s delegation to COP26. “Glasgow showed, once again, what a wicked complex problem climate change is, technically, economically, and politically. But it also underscored the determination of a global community of people committed to addressing it.”

    An “ambition gap”

    Both within the conference venue and at protests that spilled through the streets of Glasgow, one rallying cry was “keep 1.5 alive.” Alok Sharma, who was appointed by the UK government to preside over COP26, said in announcing the Glasgow pact: “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”

    In remarks delivered during the first week of the conference, Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, presented findings from the latest MIT Global Change Outlook, which showed a wide gap between countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — the UN’s term for greenhouse gas emissions reduction pledges — and the reductions needed to put the world on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and, now, the Glasgow pact.

    Pointing to this ambition gap, Paltsev called on all countries to do more, faster, to cut emissions. “We could dramatically reduce overall climate risk through more ambitious policy measures and investments,” says Paltsev. “We need to employ an integrated approach of moving to zero emissions in energy and industry, together with sustainable development and nature-based solutions, simultaneously improving human well-being and providing biodiversity benefits.”

    Finalizing the Paris rulebook

    A key outcome of COP26 (COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, held for the 26th time) was the development of a set of rules to implement Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which provides a mechanism for countries to receive credit for emissions reductions that they finance outside their borders, and to cooperate by buying and selling emissions reductions on international carbon markets.

    An agreement on this part of the Paris “rulebook” had eluded negotiators in the years since the Paris climate conference, in part because negotiators were concerned about how to prevent double-counting, wherein both buyers and sellers would claim credit for the emissions reductions.

    Michael Mehling, the deputy director of MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR) and an expert on international carbon markets, drew on a recent CEEPR working paper to describe critical negotiation issues under Article 6 during an event at the conference on Nov. 10 with climate negotiators and private sector representatives.

    He cited research that finds that Article 6, by leveraging the cost-efficiency of global carbon markets, could cut in half the cost that countries would incur to achieve their nationally determined contributions. “Which, seen from another angle, means you could double the ambition of these NDCs at no additional cost,” Mehling noted in his talk, adding that, given the persistent ambition gap, “any such opportunity is bitterly needed.”

    Andreas Haupt, a graduate student in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, joined MIT’s COP26 delegation to follow Article 6 negotiations. Haupt described the final days of negotiations over Article 6 as a “roller coaster.” Once negotiators reached an agreement, he says, “I felt relieved, but also unsure how strong of an effect the new rules, with all their weaknesses, will have. I am curious and hopeful regarding what will happen in the next year until the next large-scale negotiations in 2022.”

    Nature-based climate solutions

    World leaders also announced new agreements on the sidelines of the formal UN negotiations. One such agreement, a declaration on forests signed by more than 100 countries, commits to “working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.”

    A team from MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), which has been working with policymakers and other stakeholders on strategies to protect tropical forests and advance other nature-based climate solutions in Latin America, was at COP26 to discuss their work and make plans for expanding it.

    Marcela Angel, a research associate at ESI, moderated a panel discussion featuring John Fernández, professor of architecture and ESI’s director, focused on protecting and enhancing natural carbon sinks, particularly tropical forests such as the Amazon that are at risk of deforestation, forest degradation, and biodiversity loss.

    “Deforestation and associated land use change remain one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions in most Amazonian countries, such as Brazil, Peru, and Colombia,” says Angel. “Our aim is to support these countries, whose nationally determined contributions depend on the effectiveness of policies to prevent deforestation and promote conservation, with an approach based on the integration of targeted technology breakthroughs, deep community engagement, and innovative bioeconomic opportunities for local communities that depend on forests for their livelihoods.”

    Energy access and renewable energy

    Worldwide, an estimated 800 million people lack access to electricity, and billions more have only limited or erratic electrical service. Providing universal access to energy is one of the UN’s sustainable development goals, creating a dual challenge: how to boost energy access without driving up greenhouse gas emissions.

    Rob Stoner, deputy director for science and technology of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), and Ignacio Pérez-Arriaga, a visiting professor at the Sloan School of Management, attended COP26 to share their work as members of the Global Commission to End Energy Poverty, a collaboration between MITEI and the Rockefeller Foundation. It brings together global energy leaders from industry, the development finance community, academia, and civil society to identify ways to overcome barriers to investment in the energy sectors of countries with low energy access.

    The commission’s work helped to motivate the formation, announced at COP26 on Nov. 2, of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, a multibillion-dollar commitment by the Rockefeller and IKEA foundations and Bezos Earth Fund to support access to renewable energy around the world.

    Another MITEI member of the COP26 delegation, Martha Broad, the initiative’s executive director, spoke about MIT research to inform the U.S. goal of scaling offshore wind energy capacity from approximately 30 megawatts today to 30 gigawatts by 2030, including significant new capacity off the coast of New England.

    Broad described research, funded by MITEI member companies, on a coating that can be applied to the blades of wind turbines to prevent icing that would require the turbines’ shutdown; the use of machine learning to inform preventative turbine maintenance; and methodologies for incorporating the effects of climate change into projections of future wind conditions to guide wind farm siting decisions today. She also spoke broadly about the need for public and private support to scale promising innovations.

    “Clearly, both the public sector and the private sector have a role to play in getting these technologies to the point where we can use them in New England, and also where we can deploy them affordably for the developing world,” Broad said at an event sponsored by America Is All In, a coalition of nonprofit and business organizations.

    Food and climate alliance

    Food systems around the world are increasingly at risk from the impacts of climate change. At the same time, these systems, which include all activities from food production to consumption and food waste, are responsible for about one-third of the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions warming the planet.

    At COP26, MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab announced the launch of a new alliance to drive research-based innovation that will make food systems more resilient and sustainable, called the Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance. With 16 member institutions, the FACT Alliance will better connect researchers to farmers, food businesses, policymakers, and other food systems stakeholders around the world.

    Looking ahead

    By the end of 2022, the Glasgow pact asks countries to revisit their nationally determined contributions and strengthen them to bring them in line with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement. The pact also “notes with deep regret” the failure of wealthier countries to collectively provide poorer countries $100 billion per year in climate financing that they pledged in 2009 to begin in 2020.

    These and other issues will be on the agenda for COP27, to be held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, next year.

    “Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is broadly accepted as a critical goal to avoiding worsening climate consequences, but it’s clear that current national commitments will not get us there,” says ESI’s Fernández. “We will need stronger emissions reductions pledges, especially from the largest greenhouse gas emitters. At the same time, expanding creativity, innovation, and determination from every sector of society, including research universities, to get on with real-world solutions is essential. At Glasgow, MIT was front and center in energy systems, cities, nature-based solutions, and more. The year 2030 is right around the corner so we can’t afford to let up for one minute.” More

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    MIT collaborates with Biogen on three-year, $7 million initiative to address climate, health, and equity

    MIT and Biogen have announced that they will collaborate with the goal to accelerate the science and action on climate change to improve human health. This collaboration is supported by a three-year, $7 million commitment from the company and the Biogen Foundation. The biotechnology company, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Kendall Square, discovers and develops therapies for people living with serious neurological diseases.

    “We have long believed it is imperative for Biogen to make the fight against climate change central to our long-term corporate responsibility commitments. Through this collaboration with MIT, we aim to identify and share innovative climate solutions that will deliver co-benefits for both health and equity,” says Michel Vounatsos, CEO of Biogen. “We are also proud to support the MIT Museum, which promises to make world-class science and education accessible to all, and honor Biogen co-founder Phillip A. Sharp with a dedication inside the museum that recognizes his contributions to its development.”

    Biogen and the Biogen Foundation are supporting research and programs across a range of areas at MIT.

    Advancing climate, health, and equity

    The first such effort involves new work within the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change to establish a state-of-the-art integrated model of climate and health aimed at identifying targets that deliver climate and health co-benefits.

    “Evidence suggests that not all climate-related actions deliver equal health benefits, yet policymakers, planners, and stakeholders traditionally lack the tools to consider how decisions in one arena impact the other,” says C. Adam Schlosser, deputy director of the MIT Joint Program. “Biogen’s collaboration with the MIT Joint Program — and its support of a new distinguished Biogen Fellow who will develop the new climate/health model — will accelerate our efforts to provide decision-makers with these tools.”

    Biogen is also supporting the MIT Technology and Policy Program’s Research to Policy Engagement Initiative to infuse human health as a key new consideration in decision-making on the best pathways forward to address the global climate crisis, and bridge the knowledge-to-action gap by connecting policymakers, researchers, and diverse stakeholders. As part of this work, Biogen is underwriting a distinguished Biogen Fellow to advance new research on climate, health, and equity.

    “Our work with Biogen has allowed us to make progress on key questions that matter to human health and well-being under climate change,” says Noelle Eckley Selin, who directs the MIT Technology and Policy Program and is a professor in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “Further, their support of the Research to Policy Engagement Initiative helps all of our research become more effective in making change.”

    In addition, Biogen has joined 13 other companies in the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC), which is supporting faculty and student research and developing impact pathways that present a range of actionable steps that companies can take — within and across industries — to advance progress toward climate targets.

    “Biogen joining the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium represents our commitment to working with member companies across a diverse range of industries, an approach that aims to drive changes swift and broad enough to match the scale of the climate challenge,” says Jeremy Gregory, executive director of the MCSC. “We are excited to welcome a member from the biotechnology space and look forward to harnessing Biogen’s perspectives as we continue to collaborate and work together with the MIT community in exciting and meaningful ways.”

    Making world-class science and education available to MIT Museum visitors

    Support from Biogen will honor Nobel laureate, MIT Institute professor, and Biogen co-founder Phillip A. Sharp with a named space inside the new Kendall Square location of the MIT Museum, set to open in spring 2022. Biogen also is supporting one of the museum’s opening exhibitions, “Essential MIT,” with a section focused on solving real-world problems such as climate change. It is also providing programmatic support for the museum’s Life Sciences Maker Engagement Program.

    “Phil has provided fantastic support to the MIT Museum for more than a decade as an advisory board member and now as board chair, and he has been deeply involved in plans for the new museum at Kendall Square,” says John Durant, the Mark R. Epstein (Class of 1963) Director of the museum. “Seeing his name on the wall will be a constant reminder of his key role in this development, as well as a mark of our gratitude.”

    Inspiring and empowering the next generation of scientists

    Biogen funding is also being directed to engage the next generation of scientists through support for the Biogen-MIT Biotech in Action: Virtual Lab, a program designed to foster a love of science among diverse and under-served student populations.

    Biogen’s support is part of its Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives initiative, a $250 million, 20-year commitment to eliminate fossil fuels across its operations and collaborate with renowned institutions to advance the science of climate and health and support under-served communities. Additional support is provided by the Biogen Foundation to further its long-standing focus on providing students with equitable access to outstanding science education. More

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    Exploring the human stories behind the data

    Shaking in the back of a police cruiser, handcuffs digging into his wrists, Brian Williams was overwhelmed with fear. He had been pulled over, but before he was asked for his name, license, or registration, a police officer ordered him out of his car and into back of the police cruiser, saying into his radio, “Black male detained.” The officer’s explanation for these actions was: “for your safety and mine.”

    Williams walked away from the experience with two tickets, a pair of bruised wrists, and a desire to do everything in his power to prevent others from experiencing the utter powerlessness he had felt.

    Now an MIT senior majoring in biological engineering and minoring in Black studies, Williams has continued working to empower his community. Through experiences in and out of the classroom, he has leveraged his background in bioengineering to explore interests in public health and social justice, specifically looking at how the medical sector can uplift and support communities of color.

    Williams grew up in a close-knit family and community in Broward County, Florida, where he found comfort in the routine of Sunday church services, playing outside with friends, and cookouts on the weekends. Broward County was home to him — a home he felt deeply invested in and indebted to.

    “It takes a village. The Black community has invested a lot in me, and I have a lot to invest back in it,” he says.

    Williams initially focused on STEM subjects at MIT, but in his sophomore year, his interests in exploring data science and humanities research led him to an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) project in the Department of Political Science. Working with Professor Ariel White, he analyzed information on incarceration and voting rights, studied the behavior patterns of police officers, and screened 911 calls to identify correlations between how people described events to how the police responded to them.

    In the summer before his junior year, Williams also joined MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab, where he worked as a researcher for the Missing Data Project, which uses both journalism and data science to visualize statistics and humanize the people behind the numbers. As the project’s name suggests, there is often much to be learned from seeking out data that aren’t easily available. Using datasets and interviews describing how the pandemic affected Black communities, Williams and a team of researchers created a series called the Color of Covid, which told the stories behind the grim statistics on race and the pandemic.

    The following year, Williams undertook a research-and-development internship with the biopharmaceutical company Amgen in San Francisco, working on protein engineering to combat autoimmune diseases. Because this work was primarily in the lab, focusing on science-based applications, he saw it as an opportunity to ask himself: “Do I want to dedicate my life to this area of bioengineering?” He found the issue of social justice to be more compelling.

    At the same time, Williams was drawn toward tackling problems the local Black community was experiencing related to the pandemic. He found himself thinking deeply about how to educate the public, address disparities in case rates, and, above all, help people.

    Working through Amgen’s Black Employee Resource Group and its Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Team, Williams crafted a proposal, which the company adopted, for addressing Covid-19 vaccination misinformation in Black and Brown communities in San Mateo and San Francisco County. He paid special attention to how to frame vaccine hesitancy among members of these communities, understanding that a longstanding history of racism in scientific discovery and medicine led many Black and Brown people to distrust the entire medical industry.

    “Trying to meet people where they are is important,” Williams says.

    This experience reinforced the idea for Williams that he wanted to do everything in his power to uplift the Black community.

    “I think it’s only right that I go out and I shine bright because it’s not easy being Black. You know, you have to work twice as hard to get half as much,” he says.

    As the current political action co-chair of the MIT Black Students’ Union (BSU), Williams also works to inspire change on campus, promoting and participating in events that uplift the BSU. During his Amgen internship, he also organized the MIT Black History Month Takeover Series, which involved organizing eight events from February through the beginning of spring semester. These included promotions through social media and virtual meetings for students and faculty. For his leadership, he received the “We Are Family” award from the BSU executive board.

    Williams prioritizes community in everything he does, whether in the classroom, at a campus event, or spending time outside in local communities of color around Boston.

    “The things that really keep me going are the stories of other people,” says Williams, who is currently applying to a variety of postgraduate programs. After receiving MIT endorsement, he applied to the Rhodes and Marshall Fellowships; he also plans to apply to law school with a joint master’s degree in public health and policy.

    Ultimately, Williams hopes to bring his fight for racial justice to the policy level, looking at how a long, ongoing history of medical racism has led marginalized communities to mistrust current scientific endeavors. He wants to help bring about new legislation to fix old systems which disproportionately harm communities of color. He says he aims to be “an engineer of social solutions, one who reaches deep into their toolbox of social justice, pulling the levers of activism, advocacy, democracy, and legislation to radically change our world — to improve our social institutions at the root and liberate our communities.” While he understands this is a big feat, he sees his ambition as an asset.

    “I’m just another person with huge aspirations, and an understanding that you have to go get it if you want it,” he says. “You feel me? At the end of the day, this is just the beginning of my story. And I’m grateful to everyone in my life that’s helping me write it. Tap in.” More

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    Data flow’s decisive role on the global stage

    In 2016, Meicen Sun came to a profound realization: “The control of digital information will lie at the heart of all the big questions and big contentions in politics.” A graduate student in her final year of study who is specializing in international security and the political economy of technology, Sun vividly recalls the emergence of the internet “as a democratizing force, an opener, an equalizer,” helping give rise to the Arab Spring. But she was also profoundly struck when nations in the Middle East and elsewhere curbed internet access to throttle citizens’ efforts to speak and mobilize freely.

    During her undergraduate and graduate studies, which came to focus on China and its expanding global role, Sun became convinced that digital constraints initially intended to prevent the free flow of ideas were also having enormous and growing economic impacts.

    “With an exceptionally high mobile internet adoption rate and the explosion of indigenous digital apps, China’s digital economy was surging, helping to drive the nation’s broader economic growth and international competitiveness,” Sun says. “Yet at the same time, the country maintained the most tightly controlled internet ecosystem in the world.”

    Sun set out to explore this apparent paradox in her dissertation. Her research to date has yielded both novel findings and troubling questions.  

    “Through its control of the internet, China has in effect provided protectionist benefits to its own data-intensive domestic sectors,” she says. “If there is a benefit to imposing internet control, given the absence of effective international regulations, does this give authoritarian states an advantage in trade and national competitiveness?” Following this thread, Sun asks, “What might this mean for the future of democracy as the world grows increasingly dependent on digital technology?”

    Protect or innovate

    Early in her graduate program, classes in capitalism and technology and public policy, says Sun, “cemented for me the idea of data as a factor of production, and the importance of cross-border information flow in making a country innovative.” This central premise serves as a springboard for Sun’s doctoral studies.

    In a series of interconnected research papers using China as her primary case, she is examining the double-edged nature of internet limits. “They accord protectionist benefits to domestic data-internet-intensive sectors, on the one hand, but on the other, act as a potential longer-term deterrent to the country’s capacity to innovate.”

    To pursue her doctoral project, advised by professor of political science Kenneth Oye, Sun is extracting data from a multitude of sources, including a website that has been routinely testing web domain accessibility from within China since 2011. This allows her to pin down when and to what degree internet control occurs. She can then compare this information to publicly available records on the expansion or contraction of data-intensive industrial sectors, enabling her to correlate internet control to a sector’s performance.

    Sun has also compiled datasets for firm-level revenue, scientific citations, and patents that permit her to measure aspects of China’s innovation culture. In analyzing her data she leverages both quantitative and qualitative methods, including one co-developed by her dissertation co-advisor, associate professor of political science In Song Kim. Her initial analysis suggests internet control prevents scholars from accessing knowledge available on foreign websites, and that if sustained, such control could take a toll on the Chinese economy over time.

    Of particular concern is the possibility that the economic success that flows from strict internet controls, as exemplified by the Chinese model, may encourage the rise of similar practices among emerging states or those in political flux.

    “The grim implication of my research is that without international regulation on information flow restrictions, democracies will be at a disadvantage against autocracies,” she says. “No matter how short-term or narrow these curbs are, they confer concrete benefits on certain economic sectors.”

    Data, politics, and economy

    Sun got a quick start as a student of China and its role in the world. She was born in Xiamen, a coastal Chinese city across from Taiwan, to academic parents who cultivated her interest in international politics. “My dad would constantly talk to me about global affairs, and he was passionate about foreign policy,” says Sun.

    Eager for education and a broader view of the world, Sun took a scholarship at 15 to attend school in Singapore. “While this experience exposed me to a variety of new ideas and social customs, I felt the itch to travel even farther away, and to meet people with different backgrounds and viewpoints from mine,” than she says.

    Sun attended Princeton University where, after two years sticking to her “comfort zone” — writing and directing plays and composing music for them — she underwent a process of intellectual transition. Political science classes opened a window onto a larger landscape to which she had long been connected: China’s behavior as a rising power and the shifting global landscape.

    She completed her undergraduate degree in politics, and followed up with a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, where she focused on China-U.S. relations and China’s participation in international institutions. She was on the path to completing a PhD at Penn when, Sun says, “I became confident in my perception that digital technology, and especially information sharing, were becoming critically important factors in international politics, and I felt a strong desire to devote my graduate studies, and even my career, to studying these topics,”

    Certain that the questions she hoped to pursue could best be addressed through an interdisciplinary approach with those working on similar issues, Sun began her doctoral program anew at MIT.

    “Doer mindset”

    Sun is hopeful that her doctoral research will prove useful to governments, policymakers, and business leaders. “There are a lot of developing states actively shopping between data governance and development models for their own countries,” she says. “My findings around the pros and cons of information flow restrictions should be of interest to leaders in these places, and to trade negotiators and others dealing with the global governance of data and what a fair playing field for digital trade would be.”

    Sun has engaged directly with policy and industry experts through her fellowships with the World Economic Forum and the Pacific Forum. And she has embraced questions that touch on policy outside of her immediate research: Sun is collaborating with her dissertation co-advisor, MIT Sloan Professor Yasheng Huang, on a study of the political economy of artificial intelligence in China for the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future.

    This year, as she writes her dissertation papers, Sun will be based at Georgetown University, where she has a Mortara Center Global Political Economy Project Predoctoral Fellowship. In Washington, she will continue her journey to becoming a “policy-minded scholar, a thinker with a doer mindset, whose findings have bearing on things that happen in the world.” More

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    Smarter regulation of global shipping emissions could improve air quality and health outcomes

    Emissions from shipping activities around the world account for nearly 3 percent of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and could increase by up to 50 percent by 2050, making them an important and often overlooked target for global climate mitigation. At the same time, shipping-related emissions of additional pollutants, particularly nitrogen and sulfur oxides, pose a significant threat to global health, as they degrade air quality enough to cause premature deaths.

    The main source of shipping emissions is the combustion of heavy fuel oil in large diesel engines, which disperses pollutants into the air over coastal areas. The nitrogen and sulfur oxides emitted from these engines contribute to the formation of PM2.5, airborne particulates with diameters of up to 2.5 micrometers that are linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Previous studies have estimated that PM2.5  from shipping emissions contribute to about 60,000 cardiopulmonary and lung cancer deaths each year, and that IMO 2020, an international policy that caps engine fuel sulfur content at 0.5 percent, could reduce PM2.5 concentrations enough to lower annual premature mortality by 34 percent.

    Global shipping emissions arise from both domestic (between ports in the same country) and international (between ports of different countries) shipping activities, and are governed by national and international policies, respectively. Consequently, effective mitigation of the air quality and health impacts of global shipping emissions will require that policymakers quantify the relative contributions of domestic and international shipping activities to these adverse impacts in an integrated global analysis.

    A new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters provides that kind of analysis for the first time. To that end, the study’s co-authors — researchers from MIT and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology — implement a three-step process. First, they create global shipping emission inventories for domestic and international vessels based on ship activity records of the year 2015 from the Automatic Identification System (AIS). Second, they apply an atmospheric chemistry and transport model to this data to calculate PM2.5 concentrations generated by that year’s domestic and international shipping activities. Finally, they apply a model that estimates mortalities attributable to these pollutant concentrations.

    The researchers find that approximately 94,000 premature deaths were associated with PM2.5 exposure due to maritime shipping in 2015 — 83 percent international and 17 percent domestic. While international shipping accounted for the vast majority of the global health impact, some regions experienced significant health burdens from domestic shipping operations. This is especially true in East Asia: In China, 44 percent of shipping-related premature deaths were attributable to domestic shipping activities.

    “By comparing the health impacts from international and domestic shipping at the global level, our study could help inform decision-makers’ efforts to coordinate shipping emissions policies across multiple scales, and thereby reduce the air quality and health impacts of these emissions more effectively,” says Yiqi Zhang, a researcher at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who led the study as a visiting student supported by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

    In addition to estimating the air-quality and health impacts of domestic and international shipping, the researchers evaluate potential health outcomes under different shipping emissions-control policies that are either currently in effect or likely to be implemented in different regions in the near future.

    They estimate about 30,000 avoided deaths per year under a scenario consistent with IMO 2020, an international regulation limiting the sulfur content in shipping fuel oil to 0.5 percent — a finding that tracks with previous studies. Further strengthening regulations on sulfur content would yield only slight improvement; limiting sulfur content to 0.1 percent reduces annual shipping-attributable PM2.5-related premature deaths by an additional 5,000. In contrast, regulating nitrogen oxides instead, involving a Tier III NOx Standard would produce far greater benefits than a 0.1-percent sulfur cap, with 33,000 further avoided deaths.

    “Areas with high proportions of mortalities contributed by domestic shipping could effectively use domestic regulations to implement controls,” says study co-author Noelle Selin, a professor at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and a faculty affiliate of the MIT Joint Program. “For other regions where much damage comes from international vessels, further international cooperation is required to mitigate impacts.” More

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    Study finds lockdowns effective at reducing travel in Sierra Leone

    Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, governments have used data on people’s movements to inform strategies for containing the spread of the virus. In Europe and the United States, for example, contact-tracing apps have used Bluetooth signals in smartphones to alert people when they’ve spent time near app users who have tested positive for Covid-19. 

    But how can governments make evidence-based decisions in countries where such fine-grained data isn’t available? In recent findings, MIT researchers, in collaboration with Sierra Leone’s government, use cell tower records in Sierra Leone to show that people were traveling less during lockdowns. “When the government implemented novel three-day lockdowns, there was a dual aim to reduce virus spread and also limit social impacts, like increased hunger or food insecurity,” says Professor Lily L. Tsai, MIT Governance Lab’s (MIT GOV/LAB) director and founder. “We wanted to know if shorter lockdowns would be successful.”   

    The research was conducted by MIT GOV/LAB and MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab (CDDL), in partnership with Sierra Leone’s Directorate for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSTI) and Africell, a wireless service provider. The findings will be published as a chapter in the book “Urban Informatics and Future Cities,” a selection of research submitted to the 2021 Computational Urban Planning and Urban Management conference. 

    A proxy for mobility: cell tower records

    Any time someone’s cellphone sends or receives a text, or makes or receives a call, the nearest cell tower is pinged. The tower collects some data (call-detail records, or CDRs), including the date and time of the event and the phone number. By tracking which towers a certain (anonymized) phone number pings, the researchers could approximately measure how much someone was moving around.  

    These measurements showed that, on average, people were traveling less during lockdowns than before lockdowns. Professor Sarah Williams, CDDL’s director, says the analysis also revealed frequently traveled routes, which “allow the government to develop region-specific lockdowns.” 

    While more fine-grained GPS data from smartphones paint a more accurate picture of movement, “there just isn’t a systematic effort in many developing countries to build the infrastructure to collect this data,” says Innocent Ndubuisi-Obi Jr., an MIT GOV/LAB research associate. “In many cases, the closest thing we can use as a proxy for mobility is CDR data.”

    Measuring the effectiveness of lockdowns

    Sierra Leone’s government imposed the three-day lockdown, which required people stay in their homes, in April 2020. A few days after the lockdown ended, a two-week inter-district travel ban began. “Analysis of aggregated CDRs was the quickest means to understanding mobility prior to and during lockdowns,” says Michala Mackay, DSTI’s director and chief operating officer. 

    The data MIT and DSTI received was anonymized — an essential part of ensuring the privacy of the individuals whose data was used. 

    Extracting meaning from the data, though, presented some challenges. Only about 75 percent of adults in Sierra Leone own cellphones, and people sometimes share phones. So the towers pinged by a specific phone might actually represent the movement of several people, and not everyone’s movement will be captured by cell towers. 

    Furthermore, some districts in Sierra Leone have significantly fewer towers than others. When the data were collected, Falaba, a rural district in the northeast, had only five towers, while over 100 towers were clustered in and around Freetown, the capital. In areas with very few towers, it’s harder to detect changes in how much people are traveling. 

    Since each district had a unique tower distribution, the researchers looked at each district separately, establishing a baseline for average distance traveled in each district before the lockdowns, then measuring how movement compared to this average during lockdowns. They found that travel to other districts declined in every district, by as much as 72 percent and by as little as 16 percent. Travel within districts also dropped in all but one district. 

    This map shows change in average distance traveled per trip to other districts in Sierra Leone in 2020.

    Image courtesy of the MIT GOV/LAB and CDDL.

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    Lockdowns have greater costs in poorer areas

    While movement did decline in all districts, the effect was less dramatic in poorer, more sparsely populated areas. This finding was to be expected; other studies have shown that poorer people often can’t afford to comply with lockdowns, since they can’t take time off work or need to travel to get food. Evidence showing how lockdowns are less effective in poorer areas highlights the importance of distributing resources to poorer areas during crises, which could both provide support during a particularly challenging time and make it less costly for people to comply with social distancing measures. 

    “In low-income communities that demonstrated moderate or low compliance, one of the most common reasons why people left their homes was to search for water,” says Mackay. “A policy takeaway was that lockdowns should only be implemented in extreme cases and for no longer than three days at a time.”

    Throughout the project, the researchers collaborated intimately with DSTI. “This meant government officials learned along with the MIT researchers and added crucial local knowledge,” says Williams. “We hope this model can be replicated elsewhere — especially during crises.” 

    The researchers will be developing an MITx course teaching government officials and MIT students how to collaboratively use CDR data during crises, with a focus on how to do the analysis in a way that protects people’s privacy.

    Ndubuisi-Obi Jr. also has led a training on CDR analysis for Sierra Leonean government officials and has written a guide on how policymakers can use CDRs safely and effectively. “Some of these data sets will help us answer really important policy questions, and we have to balance that with the privacy risks,” he says. More

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    “To make even the smallest contribution to improving my country would be my dream”

    Thailand has become an economic leader in Southeast Asia in recent decades, but while the country has rapidly industrialized, many Thai citizens have been left behind. As a child growing up in Bangkok, Pavarin Bhandtivej would watch the news and wonder why families in the nearby countryside had next to nothing. He aspired to become a policy researcher and create beneficial change.

    But Bhandtivej knew his goal wouldn’t be easy. He was born with a visual impairment, making it challenging for him to see, read, and navigate. This meant he had to work twice as hard in school to succeed. It took achieving the highest grades for Bhandtivej to break through stigmas and have his talents recognized. Still, he persevered, with a determination to uplift others. “I would return to that initial motivation I had as a kid. For me, to make even the smallest contribution to improving my country would be my dream,” he says.

    “When I would face these obstacles, I would tell myself that struggling people are waiting for someone to design policies for them to have better lives. And that person could be me. I cannot fall here in front of these obstacles. I must stay motivated and move on.”

    Bhandtivej completed his undergraduate degree in economics at Thailand’s top college, Chulalongkorn University. His classes introduced him to many debates about development policy, such as universal basic income. During one debate, after both sides made compelling arguments about how to alleviate poverty, Bhandtivej realized there was no clear winner. “A question came to my mind: Who’s right?” he says. “In terms of theory, both sides were correct. But how could we know what approach would work in the real world?”

    A new approach to higher education

    The search for those answers would lead Bhandtivej to become interested in data analysis. He began investigating online courses, eventually finding the MIT MicroMasters Program in Data, Economics, and Development Policy (DEDP), which was created by MIT’s Department of Economics and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). The program requires learners to complete five online courses that teach quantitative methods for evaluating social programs, leading to a MicroMasters credential. Students that pass the courses’ proctored exams are then also eligible to apply for a full-time, accelerated, on-campus master’s program at MIT, led by professors Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, and Benjamin Olken.

    The program’s mission to make higher education more accessible worked well for Bhandtivej. He studied tirelessly, listening and relistening to online lectures and pausing to scrutinize equations. By the end, his efforts paid off — Bhandtivej was the MicroMasters program’s top scorer. He was soon admitted into the second cohort of the highly selective DEDP master’s program.

    “You can imagine how time-consuming it was to use text-to-speech to get through a 30-page reading with numerous equations, tables, and graphs,” he explains. “Luckily, Disability and Access Services provided accommodations to timed exams and I was able to push through.”   

    In the gap year before the master’s program began, Bhandtivej returned to Chulalongkorn University as a research assistant with Professor Thanyaporn Chankrajang. He began applying his newfound quantitative skills to study the impacts of climate change in Thailand. His contributions helped uncover how rising temperatures and irregular rainfall are leading to reduced rice crop yields. “Thailand is the world’s second largest exporter of rice, and the vast majority of Thais rely heavily on rice for its nutritional and commercial value. We need more data to encourage leaders to act now,” says Bhandtivej. “As a Buddhist, it was meaningful to be part of generating this evidence, as I am always concerned about my impact on other humans and sentient beings.”

    Staying true to his mission

    Now pursuing his master’s on campus, Bhandtivej is taking courses like 14.320 (Econometric Data Science) and studying how to design, conduct, and analyze empirical studies. “The professors I’ve had have opened a whole new world for me,” says Bhandtivej. “They’ve inspired me to see how we can take rigorous scientific practices and apply them to make informed policy decisions. We can do more than rely on theories.”

    The final portion of the program requires a summer capstone experience, which Bhandtivej is using to work at Innovations for Poverty Action. He has recently begun to analyze how remote learning interventions in Bangladesh have performed since Covid-19. Many teachers are concerned, since disruptions in childhood education can lead to intergenerational poverty. “We have tried interventions that connect students with teachers, provide discounted data packages, and send information on where to access adaptive learning technologies and other remote learning resources,” he says. “It will be interesting to see the results. This is a truly urgent topic, as I don’t believe Covid-19 will be the last pandemic of our lifetime.”

    Enhancing education has always been one of Bhandtivej’s priority interests. He sees education as the gateway that brings a person’s innate talent to light. “There is a misconception in many developing countries that disabled people cannot learn, which is untrue,” says Bhandtivej. “Education provides a critical signal to future employers and overall society that we can work and perform just as well, as long as we have appropriate accommodations.”

    In the future, Bhandtivej plans on returning to Thailand to continue his journey as a policy researcher. While he has many issues he would like to tackle, his true purpose still lies in doing work that makes a positive impact on people’s lives. “My hope is that my story encourages people to think of not only what they are capable of achieving themselves, but also what they can do for others.”

    “You may think you are just a small creature on a large planet. That you have just a tiny role to play. But I think — even if we are just a small part — whatever we can do to make life better for our communities, for our country, for our planet … it’s worth it.” More