News Archive

posted 04/05/02

Jeffrey D. Sachs, One of the World's Leading Economists, Will Head Earth Institute at Columbia University

Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs has been named director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, effective July 1, 2002. Sachs, who serves as an economic advisor to governments in Latin America, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Asia and Africa as well as to the United Nations, was previously at Harvard University and is widely considered one of the most important economists in the world.

Responding to the global call for greater clarity about the sustainable future of planet Earth, the Earth Institute operates at the leading edge of study of Earth: in an unprecedented and innovative framework, physical, biological, and social scientists are working together to broaden understanding of Earth's complex systems, so as to enhance its sustainability.

"Jeffrey Sachs is a major public intellectual, in the best sense. He brings scholarly erudition and insight to the most serious and fundamental issues of our time -- the organization of market economies in newly developing democracies; the methods of dealing with countries that are under threat of having their economies dissolve into bankruptcy; and the critical importance of focusing on the interrelationships of economic structures with, for example, disease and climate.

"This is really the essence of the undertaking of the Earth Institute at Columbia. I am thrilled to be able to work with Jeff Sachs to help make it even more of a reality. It is a worthy goal of a great university like Columbia."

-Lee Bollinger,
President-elect, Columbia University

Talking with Columbia's earth, life and social scientists shortly after the announcement of his appointment, Sachs said that the Earth Institute, in combination with his recent appointment as special advisor to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, seemed to provide an excellent way in which he could advance his work in the most meaningful way.

"The first time I talked with Michael Crow about the Earth Institute, I immediately realized how it had the many components needed to address pressing sustainability issues. When I spoke with Annan about my inclination to make the move to Columbia, he was extremely enthusiastic. He realizes that the Columbia Earth Institute can provide us with the intellectual guidance to deal with tricky sustainable development issues."

Sachs will become professor of economics, international and public affairs, and health policy and management at Columbia with appointments in three of the University's schools: Arts and Sciences, the School of International and Public Affairs, and the Mailman School of Public Health. His public health projects will include working with programs to investigate the causes and health effects of toxic levels of arsenic in the well water in areas of Bangladesh and with the school's international HIV/AIDS initiatives.

A Collaborative Forum for Research, Teaching, and Outreach

In just five years, the Columbia Earth Institute has become a leader in Earth systems science teaching, research, and the application of that science for the benefit of society.

Today, the Earth Institute counts more than 800 Columbia faculty from eight research centers, eight academic departments (seven in the Arts & Sciences and Engineering and one at Barnard College) and seven schools among its supporters. The Earth Institute has established collaborative partnerships with other institutions on a global basis, including the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Central Weather Bureau of Taiwan, that complement Columbia's strengths and add to the range of what the Institute can offer students and faculty.

"I am delighted that Jeffrey Sachs, one of the world's most important international economists, has accepted our offer to head the Earth Institute. The global dimensions of his work are a great fit with Columbia's international character.

"He will provide extraordinary leadership for the Earth Institute, which has integrated the earth, life and social sciences in ways that no other institution has achieved. The Earth Institute provides an excellent vehicle for Jeff to pursue his goal of fostering economic growth in developing nations while also promoting human health and and preserving the natural environment."

-George Rupp, President, Columbia University

The Institute grew out of scientific discovery and technological advances at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the realization that understanding of physical Earth had broad and complicated social consequences. Through on-the-ground projects in local communities, the Institute makes it possible for social, physical, and biological scientists to work in tandem with citizens and local officials, ensuring that scientific information is introduced and implemented to the optimum benefit of communities.

Examples of research conducted under the auspices of the Earth Institute include:

  • Using highly predictive computer models to forecast the intensity and timing of future El Niño climate events and then developing the best societal frameworks for sharing that information with affected nations and peoples;

  • Assessing and mitigating the risk of arsenic contamination in the drinking water of perhaps 40 million people in Bangladesh;

  • Building a coalition of international scientists -- ranging in expertise from geophysicists and seismologists to psychologists and economists -- to study and then pose solutions for minimizing the dangers of earthquakes and other hazards;

  • Doubling the carbon dioxide levels in Biosphere 2, the world's largest controlled laboratory environment, to ascertain with increased certainty the impact of global warming on ecosystems by mid-century.

These collaborations and many others are shedding new light on the intricate interconnections of humans with biological and physical processes. While many of the projects focus on particular problems in real locations and in real time, the Institute's research is intended to have broader-reaching effects globally and to serve as the basis for innovation in teaching Earth systems science.

Education: The Driving Force

Spurred by the activity of the Columbia Earth Institute, the University at large has seen the beginning of a transformation of education. Faculty members are creating new instructional programs that connect environmental science and policy. Many new links cross school and departmental lines, preparing a new kind of graduate at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels who understands that an interdisciplinary approach is vital for a sustainable future. Columbia now has five undergraduate programs, six master's programs and five doctoral programs associated with the Institute. At the same time, faculty members are packaging some of their global sustainability courses for the public via the Web.

The Earth Institute Centers

The Columbia Earth Institute has grown to encompass a federation of eight research and teaching centers, each with its own unique perspective on understanding Earth to enhance sustainability. These units include:

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the leading research center in the world examining the planet from its core to its atmosphere, across every continent and every ocean. From global climate change to earthquakes, volcanoes, shrinking resources, environmental hazards, and beyond, LDEO scientists continue to provide the basic knowledge of earth systems that must inform the difficult choices needed to maintain the health and habitability of our planet.

Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University, the only urban laboratory of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA). GISS is a climate research center that models and monitors earth systems. In addition to research, GISS plays an important teaching function, running educational programs at more than twenty universities, schools, and organizations in the New York metropolitan area.

Biosphere 2 Center, Columbia University's 250-acre Arizona campus devoted to deepening understanding of earth systems vital to informed leadership of the planet. Its 3.5-acre, glass-enclosed, research laboratory allows systems-level research on the science of sustainability. Academic programs in earth systems for high school, undergraduate, and graduate students as well as educational programs for 180,000 annual visitors and local school children, are part of the Center's continued commitment to public outreach and education.

Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, a consortium of five leading science and education institutions -- Columbia University, the American Museum of Natural History, The New York Botanical Garden, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Wildlife Trust. The Center employs a wide array of resources to train the next generation of environmental leaders charged with conserving Earth's biological diversity.

Earth Engineering Center, founded in 1996, includes some 20 engineering faculty members, in addition to a diversified group of specialists from several Columbia schools as well as from other universities and environmental organizations. Part of the historic Henry Krumb School of Mines and closely linked to its new academic program in Earth and Environmental Engineering, the Center is uniquely equipped to meet the challenges of managing planetary resources in the 21st century.

International Research Institute for Climate Prediction, founded in 1996, aims to improve quality of life and environmental sustainability through the use of climate prediction science. From climate forecasting and modeling to fishery management, IRI researchers focus on where climate fluctuation and public policy intersect. By encouraging societies to make climate a routine part of regional planning and decision-making, the IRI collaborates with communities to better manage the challenges posed by climate fluctuation.

Center for International Earth Science Information Network specializes in on-line data and information management, spatial data integration, training, and interdisciplinary research. The Center for International Earth Science Information Network aims to serve the Earth data and information needs of science and public and private decision makers worldwide through training, education, and technical consultation.

Laboratory of Populations, a joint venture of Columbia University and The Rockefeller University that uses demography, epidemiology, ecology, statistics, and mathematical modeling to detect and measure the continual changes that occur in populations. The Laboratory studies continue to provide insight into population increase/decrease, the spread of diseases in households and communities, and the social structures that are essential to human health and well being.

Jeff Sachs says economists have overlooked an important variable in achieving stability -- the environment.
Not anymore…

The Institute supports a myriad of other incubated intellectual enterprises, where scientists are working across disciplines to address issues such as water, carbon and waste management, hazards (natural and human-made,) and urban sustainability, that have grave consequences for future generations.

The Institute grows out of Columbia University's commitment to enhance understanding of global sustainability and its recognition that this understanding requires the synergy of physical, biological, and social scientists in cooperation with an informed and interested citizenry.

Two senior committees -- the Columbia Earth Institute Academic Committee and the Task Force on Undergraduate Environmental Education -- provide professional and educational leadership to the Earth Institute. Michael Crow, executive vice provost, who will become president of Arizona State University in July, has led the Institute since its founding.

"The critical issues we address -- and possible solutions to those issues -- call for a new kind of collaboration across disciplines and a fundamentally new way of tackling the problem," says Dr. Crow. "We cannot secure our future as a species if we do not first understand what impact we have on the planet we inhabit and transform. Getting at that understanding -- and framing viable solutions for our future -- is what the Columbia Earth Institute is all about. For the last five years, Columbia University through its Earth Institute has been engaged in an intellectual and institution-building experiment with the goal of better understanding Earth to enhance sustainability. On our first meeting, Jeffrey Sachs immediately understood our approach and recognized how it could assist his international development work that spans areas of climate and health, climate and poverty, and economic development."

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About The Earth Institute
The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit