Susan Hockfield: MIT President Launches Energy Initiative

For battling scientific challenges, she is one of America's Best Leaders.

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When Susan Hockfield was named president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in August 2004, one of the first things she did was go on a listening tour. Her main question for students and faculty was what MIT, a longtime leader in scientific research, should focus on in the next decade. "I expected to get a lot of different answers, and, frankly, I did get a lot of different answers," Hockfield says. "But there was near unanimity that MIT needed to have a larger impact in solving the world's energy challenges."

At the time, MIT had dozens of labs doing energy research, but many professors were working largely in isolation. "There were lots of beautiful flowers, but no gardening—they weren't clustered in any way," she recalls. So over the course of the next two years, with the help of a faculty team, Hockfield outlined and launched the MIT Energy Initiative, wooing major investments from industry sponsors and bringing together scientists, engineers, and policy wonks to work on global energy problems. The initiative has become a leading voice on energy in Washington and a source of scientific advances in everything from solar power to carbon capture and sequestration technology for coal-burning power plants.

Group insight. Part of the Energy Initiative's success reflects Hockfield's long-standing commitment to collaborative research. Earlier in her career, Hockfield was a highly successful neurobiologist. She did her graduate work at the National Institutes of Health in a pain perception lab alongside colleagues from a range of disciplines—clinicians, pharmacologists, anatomists, and social workers—before she became a professor at Yale in the 1980s. Those experiences, she says, not only infused her own attitude on research but also shaped her efforts at MIT. "Part of the joy in doing science for me is not just that the experiments are great and the results are great but also sitting around with a group of people and talking over the experiments that are going on," says Hockfield, 58. "Someone, because of that group conversation, will have an insight that no one would have had on his or her own."

Today, leading one of the nation's premier institutions, Hockfield spends at least one day every four to six weeks in Washington, trying to shape the country's thinking about energy and science policy. She has pushed particularly hard to revive funding for energy research, which, until this year, had dropped precipitously since the 1980s as a portion of the federal research budget. "What's important is not just the extraordinary inventions we produce," she says, "but how we do the work."