Message from the Executive Director

In the New York Times Sunday Review on October 25, 2013, we were pleased to see an opinion piece by Chris P. Nielsen and Mun S. Ho entitled “Clearing the Air in China.” Marshaling only the data that a short piece can allow, the article advocated the introduction of a carbon tax in China to curb carbon emissions and control air pollution, thus saving countless lives. Chris is executive director of the China Project at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Mun is a visitor to the China Project, and their edited volume, Clearer Skies Over China: Reconciling Air Quality, Climate and Economic Goals, has just been released by MIT Press.

We took a special interest in this article because in 2010 the Center awarded a Weatherhead Initiative grant to principal investigators Professors Michael B. McElroy of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Dale W. Jorgenson of the Department of Economics, which included Chris and Mun as well as the Harvard-based researcher Zhao Yu, and Tsinghua University-based Cao Jing and Wang Yuxuan, and Lei Yu of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning. The project was called “The Costs and Benefits of Carbon and Air Pollution Control in China: An Interdisciplinary and Analytical Framework.”

In reacting to our recognition of the article in the Times, Chris had this to say: “Let me just clarify that WCFIA contributed centrally…I have always found the Center’s focus on rigorous scholarship refreshing and validating. It has long been dead easy for us to go after cheap headlines on our topics, e.g., ‘Harvard Study Says Chinese Air Pollution Kills 515,000 People a Year.’ We have always resisted doing this because I don’t think it’s constructive to ‘dumb down’ issues and play to preconceptions just to get press. And yet sometimes I feel pressure to do exactly that, even within Harvard.”

Chris went on to say, “It was gratifying to have support for the mission we truly want to emphasize: pushing the boundaries of what is known on our topics and presenting it in a form that helps to build useful knowledge, in China and internationally. This is how we want to have impact. Getting solicited for an article in the Times is exciting, but ultimately it’s a means to an end: getting the right people to know about the substance behind the op-ed. By this I mean our book, which WCFIA’s commitment literally made possible. So thank you and WCFIA once again for this.”

The Weatherhead Initiative in International Affairs, designed in 1998 to “encourage and support large-scale and groundbreaking research,” is a signal effort of research funding championed by the Center. We have so far supported one dozen Weatherhead Initiatives, with the last one, on Global History, introducing a new concept of still-deeper interdisciplinarity and inter-institutional cooperation through the model of its “research cluster,” our requiring that a research team come together on campus to run seminars and at least one conference for a “residential” middle year or years of the project, and ultimately toward the production of scholarly publications as the funding winds down.

“Rigorous,” indeed, is our watchword. While we appreciate, of course, applied and policy-relevant work, its foundation must be data collection and analysis that are theoretically sound, intellectually daring, and of interest across national boundaries.

It is no small thing to design a Weatherhead Initiative Research Cluster. Planning three or more years of research that should dominate the scholarly attentions of a combination of five or six (or more) members of the Harvard faculty, graduate students, visitors, and undergraduates is a daunting challenge. The Center’s ability to find staffing and space within our Center for Government and International Studies can sometimes be constrained by other priorities around the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Obligations toward teaching and service to any number of administrative callings can easily compromise commitment, and yet the opportunity to think big and fundamentally has attracted major research initiatives to the Weatherhead Center over the past fifteen years.

In 2014, we look forward to supporting another Weatherhead Initiative Research Cluster, perhaps with more than $500,000 for a multiyear, groundbreaking scholarly purpose. Our hope, most certainly, is that it results, as Chris said, in “pushing the boundaries of what is known on our topics and presenting it in a form that helps to build useful knowledge.” Acting Center Director Jeff Frieden’s reaction? “We should get a copy of Chris’s note engraved to put above the portal (if we had a portal).”

Somehow, we are going to get that portal.

Steven B. Bloomfield
Executive Director