Suzanne Berger leads a team that is rethinking what it means to be made in America

Suzanne Berger

Professor Suzanne Berger

Image: Gretchen Ertl

Twenty-five years ago, MIT President Paul Gray launched a landmark research effort that addressed the persistent decline of America's industrial economy. Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Solow and computer science pioneer Michael Dertouzos and their interdisciplinary team published their findings in an influential book called Made in America. Published in 10 languages, Made in America helped transform the culture and practice of manufacturing in the United States.

A generation later, MIT President Susan Hockfield has enlisted MIT Political Science professor Suzanne Berger to undertake a similar game-changing study over the next two years. Berger and Phil Sharp, Nobel Laureate in biology, are chairing a new interdisciplinary team called Production in the Innovation Economy. The aim of the initiative: get to the root of why the United States excels at product innovation but is steadily falling behind other nations when it comes to leading edge production and manufacturing.

Representing such diverse fields as economics, engineering, science, management, and the social sciences, the team will look at how the nation can build on its proven strengths as an innovator in other realms to strengthen manufacturing, create new jobs and new enterprises, and insure that great ideas born in this country have a sufficiently robust infrastructure to deliver them to market.

"In all our work in MIT Political Science, we aim to communicate with a broad public audience. As our colleagues did more than 20 years ago with Made in America, we hope this project will have a major impact on public understanding of how we need to move forward in the U.S. economy. The answer, for example, is not to blame China. It's to look at what we need to do here in this country to be more competitive with China."

Tapping Suzanne Berger to head the initiative was a strategic choice. Berger was a member of the iconically successful team that produced Made in America. Her celebrated 2005 book How We Compete, the result of a five-year interdisciplinary study at the MIT Industrial Performance Center, created a minor revolution of its own, demonstrating that the key to competing in the global marketplace doesn't come down to one set formula, nor is it predicated on cheap labor, as conventional wisdom holds.

MIT Political Science department head Richard Locke is also a member of the Production in the Innovation Economy team, and Berger believes that the department can make an important contribution to the effort. "At MIT Political Science, we are committed to focusing on real world problems. We're open to a mix of methodologies. And we're comfortableĆ¢€”indeed, we thriveĆ¢€”in interdisciplinary groups. There's a flatness at MIT, rare among academic environments, that allows us to move easily across departments and get things done together."