State of the Planet

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Faculty Profile: Kenneth Prewitt

Kenneth Prewitt brings to the Earth Institute a very interesting and eclectic background rarely seen in academia–even in a diverse setting like the Earth Institute.  Now the Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at the School of International and Public Affairs, he has spent about half of his career in research universities and the other half in non-university positions and brings an interesting perspective to his role as an Earth Institute social scientist and advisor.

Prewitt frames his approach to his involvement with the Earth Institute like this: “Ask any group of scientists how much of their work is relevant to making a better world.  Then ask them how much of it is intelligently used for that purpose. ‘Why, all of it’ is generally the response to the first question, which is just as predictably followed by ‘not nearly enough’ to the second.”  He would like to know “what explains this gap between applicability and actual use?” and wants this gap to be framed as a research agenda.

Across his career he experienced and wrote about issues surrounding the management and functioning of scientific institutions.  He is not hesitant to draw on his experiences as a manager of scientific organizations and programs in advising the Earth Institute as a member of the Academic Committee–a very valuable asset for the Institute.

Prewitt was director of the U.S. Census Bureau, president of the Social Science Research Council, senior vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, director of the National Opinion Research Center, and a member of several dozen boards, advisory committees and expert panels.  Despite a quarter-century “off-campus,” so to speak, he continued to see himself as an “academic temporarily parked elsewhere” and his many pro bono assignments kept him close to the world of research universities.

Prewitt engaged in many of the Earth Institute’s substantive issues–particularly in his decade-long responsibilities for the Rockefeller Foundation’s international science-based development program in health, agriculture, population and the environment. He also held such roles as the founding board chair of the Energy Foundation, the originator of what has now matured into the Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD), a member of a half-dozen UN and World Bank committees, a consultant to MacArthur, Hewlett, and other foundations focusing on the environment and development agenda, and a part of committees associated with organizations such as IIASA and NSF.

A question that has long been a major focus of Prewitt’s work has been the “use of evidence in policy and practice.”  It is an issue that was sharpened during his directorship of the U.S. Census Bureau and which in the last decade has drawn him to settings where he can pursue it, including being a founding board member of the State of the USA (a fresh effort to create a key national indicator system in the U.S.) and, more pertinent to the Earth Institute, in his current position as chair of the NRC Committee on the subject.
He says that “the world needs science and, in particular, the array of scientific expertise reflected in the Earth Institute’s myriad programs.  If the responsible institutions–from the global to the village–are making less use of that science than we can reasonably expect, we should be asking why.  The answer could lead to a scientific theory of the use of science in policy and practice–a politics and economics not of science, but of how science makes a difference.”  It is this research question that brought Prewitt to Columbia and it is what excites him about being involved with the Earth Institute.

Prewitt earned his B.A. from Southern Methodist University in 1958, his M.A. from Washington University in 1959 and his Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University in 1963. He is a recipient of two honorary degrees, numerous other awards and an array of fellowships.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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