"Spotlight: Dan Schrag"
Professor of Earth and Planetary Science Dan Schrag is director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE). Schrag's work with HUCE intersects with Belfer Center efforts in several areas. Schrag teaches science and policy classes with John Holdren, director of the Belfer Center's Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, and takes part in discussions sponsored by the Center on issues related to the environment and security. He is a member of the Belfer Center's energy security working group which is exploring with Russian counterparts ways in which this year's G8 summit, chaired by Russia, can make advances in global energy security. The Belfer Center is supporting a major seminar series organized by HUCE to debate critical issues related to energy.
As director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE), Dan Schrag is in his element. His work is to bring people together-scholars, researchers, teachers, and students from diverse fields and departments at Harvard, along with other leaders in relevant fields-to delve into, debate, and recommend research and policies related to the environment and its many interactions with human society.
Schrag is a paleoclimatologist with a background in geology, geophysics, geochemistry, chemical oceanography, and public policy. His interest in science began in high school when he published his first scientific paper. As an undergraduate at Yale he majored in geology and political science, went to Berkeley for a Ph.D. in geochemistry, joined the Princeton faculty in 1994 where he focused on ancient climates, and moved to Harvard in 1997 where he began expanding his interest to include modern climates and climate change.
Schrag's current research involves finding geologic locations that might be appropriate for containing the huge amount of carbon that will be captured from burning coal if the new technology of coal gasification (a process being investigated by the Belfer Center to reduce greenhouse gases) is widely implemented.
In 2000, Dan Schrag's work in oceanography and climatology led to his being named a MacArthur Fellow. He was presented with the "genius grant" for "exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work." Schrag was notified of the award by Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program Director John Holdren, a former recipient of the prestigious award and a long-time friend and mentor.
Among the works that earned Schrag the MacArthur grant was his research with Harvard Professor of Geology Paul Hoffman supporting the theory that the Earth was episodically frozen between 750 and 500 million years ago (known as "Snowball Earth"), immediately before a burst of diversification of plants and animals that formed the basic blueprints for many living things today.
Shortly after receiving the MacArthur grant, Schrag took the first of what would be many steps toward fulfilling one of his major objectives of bringing scholars together to discuss the intersection of science and policy. He and Holdren began hosting a weekly brainstorming breakfast that continues to attract a range of science and policy scholars and practitioners.
"For me, science is a social process," Dan Schrag said in 2001 when he accepted the James B. Macelwane Medal. "Ideas are created and refined from conversations with others," he said. "Arguments are framed, assumptions are questioned, but all through time spent with colleagues and friends."
Schrag's agenda at the Center for the Environment includes ideas and actions. A major HUCE goal for the next decade is a university-wide energy initiative. "There is a national crisis of intellectual capital in energy research," he says, "and Harvard has an obligation to grow the next generation of scholars in this area." Schrag believes that low energy prices during the past few decades led to a deficit of energy scholars, noting that most current faculty who focus on energy became interested in the field in the 1970s when high oil prices spiked a recession. HUCE is addressing this shortage directly through an Environmental Fellows Program, which brings bright post-doctoral fellows to Harvard to work closely with faculty.
Building on the belief that energy challenges can only be solved if all sectors are engaged, HUCE is working to secure funding for new appointments in energy research at each of Harvard's relevant departments-from the Kennedy School and Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences to the Business School and School of Design. "The Center for the Environment will be the connector for the various faculty scattered around the university, "Schrag says, "and will encourage interaction across disciplines, with all working on various issues related to energy-energy technology, energy and health, energy and design, energy efficiency, energy security."
To engage energy experts beyond the Harvard community, HUCE began a major symposium series in February, "the Future of Energy," which brings a variety of leaders from industry, government and academia to present their perspectives. The Belfer Center is supporting this initiative and organizing brainstorming sessions between these visitors and students, faculty, and fellows.
Schrag feels that his work with energy is significantly linked with security and climate change. "The best information I can get from the geologic record says that the impacts of climate change are likely to be much more severe than most predictions suggest. There will be surprises; I can't predict exactly what these will be, but there will be surprises. We need to take climate change seriously and do everything possible to slow it down and reduce its impact."
Harvard's Geological Museum, where HUCE is located, features a global climate change exhibit designed by Schrag. The exhibit includes an interactive video presentation in which Schrag poses questions and allows visitors to make decisions about how much they would be willing to do to protect the planet. These are questions Schrag poses in a book he is writing, questions he plans to keep asking and working with colleagues to answer.
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