Judith Layzer is an anomaly at MIT. Although she shares her colleagues’ curiosity about aquatic systems, it’s her approach that makes this professor of environmental policy stand apart from the engineers. “There’s a mindset in engineering about problem solving that in some respects is very effective,” she says. “On the other hand, it doesn’t deal well with ambiguity, nor with questions about policy and values.”

Layzer, whose recent book, Natural Experiments, includes several water-policy case studies, is a political scientist who seeks holistic answers to energy and environmental questions. She also suggests resource management approaches that consider all components of an ecosystem — like humans, animals, and habitats — rather than any one in isolation. And she strives to spark this kind of thinking in others.

“If MIT is going to solve the world’s water challenges,” Layzer insists, “it’s time that we get people thinking about politics and recognizing that a strictly utilitarian approach is not always the way to go.” And whether it’s local disputes over hazardous waste, national controversies over public land, or international conflicts over global warming, Layzer knows that preparing scientists for a complex political environment is just as important as training them in basic science. “When it comes to water and conservation issues,” she says, “nobody is objective. It’s very politically charged. The MIT community needs to develop the savvy to work in that environment. You may have the best solutions, but you won’t get far unless you have a smart political strategy.”

One of Layzer’s most important tasks is challenging the notion that science is a value-free enterprise. “That’s very uncomfortable to some people. But they must remember that when scientists develop and extrapolate from models, particularly in a policy-relevant field like water and the environment, they make value-based judgments. It’s important for them to be aware of their own biases.”

In addition to instilling critical thinking across campus, Layzer hopes to influence the way that the MIT community approaches water-related problems in their respective fields. An expert in ecosystem-based management, Layzer has long believed that solutions that respect the environment will be key. “If you look at the extreme weather we’ve recently had in New England, where so many homes were flooded, we’ve got too much water. In other parts of the world, too little. Scientists and engineers should appreciate and work with the variability of the natural system, rather than trying to control it with too many interventions. Whenever possible, we should let water do what water does naturally, and rely more heavily on biomimicry and restoration.”

Layzer acknowledges that her perspective is challenging to both traditional policy experts and the engineering culture on campus. Coupled with the intensity of the climate-change debate and growing pressures on water resources, she comments, “We live in very cynical times. But I feel fortunate to be at the Institute. We have the smartest people right here. And when people get interested in a problem, the tide turns in exciting and unpredictable ways. There are going to be huge opportunities at MIT.”