New Director To Broaden Focus of Risk Analysis Center

Four months into his stint as head of Harvard’s Center for Risk Analysis (HRCA), James K. Hammitt ’78 has plans to extend the center’s reach throughout the University.

Hammitt, a professor of economics and decision sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), received plenty of support from fellow faculty in his quest to attain his new post as director of the HRCA.

“It is unusual for faculty to approach the search committee,” said HSPH Dean Barry R. Bloom, to whom the committee reported. “It was quite unusual that members of HCRA approached the search committee to say they had developed a respect for him.”

John S. Evans, senior lecturer on environmental science for the Department of Environmental Health at HSPH, taught several classes and directed a graduate program with Hammitt.

“Jim is brilliant, dedicated and is well regarded by serious scholars in the field,” Evans wrote in an e-mail.

According to Bloom, though, Hammitt didn’t need the support to get the top spot at the center, which is HSPH’s branch dedicated to developing analytical methods of assessing risk and hazard management.

“Hammitt gave a brilliant presentation” to the search committee, Bloom said. “We were impressed by how his vision emerged.”

Hammitt worked at HSPH for 10 years—he was promoted to the role of full-time professor last spring—before he applied to fill the opening left by John D. Graham, HCRA’s former director who now serves as the administrator for the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

After Graham’s formal resignation, a committee was immediately established to seek out potential replacements worldwide.

In November 2003, more than two years after Graham’s departure, Hammitt took over as director with an ambitious list of goals.

At the top of his agenda, Hammitt stressed the importance of increasing the focus on decision sciences, which include game theory, cost analysis and risk analysis.

“Decision sciences have been the fundamental idea underlying [HCRA] since it began,” Hammitt said. “But now the center will emphasize more than it has the development of methodologies and teaching.”

“The key idea [about decision sciences] is when you make a decision, you typically do not know the consequence because factors you can’t control will influence the outcome,” Hammitt added. “We try to identify those consequences and figure out whether they are good or bad and how likely they are.”

Hammitt said advances in decision sciences will affect issues as basic as whether to purchase a lottery ticket, and as complicated as whether to risk one’s life for the sake of a leisure activity like rock climbing.

“Making decisions is what we do all day long all our lives,” he said.

“Jim will work to ensure that HCRA promotes the highest quality of scholarship in the fields of risk and decision analysis and to see that these tools are applied to important problems in environmental and public health in a thoughtful and balanced manner,” Evans wrote in an e-mail.

Peter Neumann, associate professor of policy and decision sciences at the HSPH, singled out Hammitt’s ability to integrate academic and pragmatic considerations.

“He’s a rare person—one of the best pure methodologists I’ve ever worked with. He has a good understanding of policy issues, not just their applications,” Neumann said. “You don’t always get everything in the same package.”

Pointing to the importance of collaboration, Hammitt highlighted increased communication across the University as another of his objectives. He has begun work on a website to meet this need.

As director of HCRA, Hammitt has been forced to place some of his own research on the backburner.

“As a professor, I did a lot of my own research,” Hammit said. “I’m not getting my own research done at the moment.”

Whereas before he was responsible only for working with students and conducting research, Hammitt must now take on a variety of administrative tasks—recruiting faculty, overseeing faculty promotions and following the press’ coverage of HCRA, among many others. With all these added responsibilities, though, Hammitt said he hopes his new position will not prevent him from continuing to work personally with his students.

Only four months into his stint as director, Hammitt has plenty of time to tackle the items on his to-do list.

While Hammitt claims that he has “not done much” since he began his post, Bloom has great confidence in Hammitt.

“It would be hard to say that he has implemented anything tangible since he became director,” Bloom said. “But his role has been positive as he has reached out to colleagues and tried to develop a University-wide strategy.”

“I’m very hopeful that in the future, HCRA will continue to have a major impact in terms of helping people make decisions,” Bloom continued. “And I know that [Hammitt] will raise the level of academic performance.”

—Staff writer Claire G. Friedman can be reached at cfriedm@fas.harvard.edu.