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HST-School:: Letter to Ad Hoc Committee

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May 23, 2011

TO: Ad Hoc Committee to Explore Options for the Structure of the Harvard MIT   Health Sciences & Technology (HST) Effort at MIT

FROM:  HST Faculty at MIT

We, the members of the HST faculty at MIT, have given much thoughtful consideration to the question of the best administrative structure for HST at MIT. In the petition you previously received we made a recommendation within the constraints specified by the charge to your committee. What we address here is, absent those constraints, what we see as MIT’s most effective strategy to focus its considerable resources on human health related research and education. 

We have come to the conclusion that the establishment of a School of Health Sciences and Technology (or other appropriate name) that is closely integrated with existing departments and schools at MIT would provide the optimal administrative structure. (The attachment elaborates the rationale.)  We believe that the school structure would catalyze productive interaction and collaboration of scientists, engineers, and physicians in health-related educational and research programs, and would be a bold and highly visible statement of MIT’s commitment to address major challenges to human health.

Attachment - Health, Medical Sciences and Technology at MIT


Health, Medical Sciences and Technology at MIT Strategy for the future 

The Opportunity

Virtually all institutions – public and private – have joined the chorus arguing that there has been no more opportune time than the present to advance human health through interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary efforts. They have further articulated a moral imperative to accelerate translation from invention and discovery to practice. Advances in science and technology, the enormous pressure from societal need (nationally and globally), and the overall intellectual landscape have evolved to a point that from each of these perspectives, the moment is right for major breakthroughs in human health given the right combination of resources. Because MIT controls so many of the necessary resources for major breakthroughs, it is incumbent on the Institute to ask if there is a better approach to the opportunity than we now present to the world. Is the ad hoc growth of the past several decades correctly organized for maximum effectiveness? Is there some part of the structure that is missing that would make a major difference in our ability to seize this opportunity? 

Today, MIT is well positioned to realize the opportunity of being on the cutting edge of human health research and education. Though at present MIT is not widely perceived as playing a key role in the medical arena, its strengths in basic biology, cancer research, neurosciences and the growing influence of biomedicine in the engineering sciences poise MIT for high impact on medicine. Moreover, in the past decade, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has replaced the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense as the leading source of research funding at MIT overall. The fact is that MIT has an established and enviable track record of health science innovations and of educating the leaders of the future. In addition, MIT has established successful models that leverage and promote the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary efforts clearly needed for advances in medicine. Today, many of MIT’s undergraduates and graduate students are interested in a career that relates to the health sciences. Furthermore, geographically, MIT sits in the epicenter of biomedical ferment – among the world’s best medical institutions and biotechnology and medical device industries. Thus, in short, MIT’s capacity to contribute to health and medicine is great. 

Despite the above strengths, MIT’s impact is limited by the absence of a robust MIT-centric focus on health. MIT brings to this arena a unique culture and enormous relevant strengths in science and engineering. As it has done in the past in radar, energy, electronics, computers and other areas of engineering, there is no doubt that MIT can have a transformative impact on human health. We believe that the establishment at MIT of a School of Health Sciences and Technology would add significantly to MIT’s contribution to human health and enhance its public image as a major leader in the science and technology of perhaps the most important field in contemporary society.

The Competition

MIT was an early player in integrated science, engineering and bio/medicine. In the 1960s MIT was approached by the NIH about establishing a unique brand of medical school, but ultimately implemented this vision by joining forces with Harvard in the creation of the Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST). At that time, the notion of integrating science, engineering, and medicine was outside the conventional wisdom, not to mention beyond the ability of most institutions, and there was little competition. As late as the 1990s, few would have imagined that today’s universities would be devoting hundreds of millions of dollars to build multi-disciplinary education and research facilities focused on integration of the life and engineering/physical sciences; that the National Academies would articulate a “Futures Initiative” focused on breaking down barriers and building new ways of bringing science, engineering and medicine together for the “improvement of the human condition”; that NIH would embrace engineering and translational research. However, over the past decade, not only has opportunity for impact grown enormously, but the competition has also grown. Indeed, many institutions have staked their very future on initiatives in the biomedical domain in hopes of leapfrogging the present and immediate past leaders of enabling technologies. 

MIT should now make the bold move to form a School of Health Sciences and Technology to complement and support its health related engineering and sciences. We believe this is the best way for MIT to seize control of its destiny to reach the goals set out earlier. This School should create a full partnership to all elements of MIT and have other attributes that distinguish it, including: 

  • Faculty and students of the highest quality 
  • Be an integral part of the MIT structure 
  • Faculty appointments: primary, secondary/joint with other departments
  • Have a close, intimate, and formal relationship with teaching hospitals 
  • Include faculty whose primary institutional appointments are at teaching hospitals 
  • Be “uniquely MIT” by promoting the integration of fundamental science and engineering in the advancement of human health and the training of the next generations to do the same. 

We believe strongly that MIT should position itself as the premier institution in the Health Sciences and Technology arena and transform it in the same way it transformed the electrical engineering and computer sciences over the last 50 years.


Now is the right time for MIT to take a bold step because of the confluence of three powerful forces: need – societal both national and global; opportunity – made possible by the advances in science and technology coupled with MIT’s preeminent role in those advances; and increasing MIT resources – extraordinary investments in people, programs, facilities and infrastructure over the last several decades. It would be a tragedy for MIT not to have a highly visible and significant stake in medicine over the decades to come. We should establish a planning process at the most senior level of leadership to assure that MIT retains and extends its role as a world leader in science, engineering and medicine.


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