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Three new center directors look to the future at FSI

Like a lot of people, Colin Kahl long thought of Washington, D.C. as the place to be when it comes to matters of international security. Today, Kahl, who served as national security adviser to former Vice President Joseph Biden, has a different opinion.

"A lot of the most cutting-edge policy questions and international security challenges of this century are, in a strange way, west coast issues," said Kahl, who took over as co-director of social sciences for Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) in early September. He points to the role of technology in reshaping the global balance of power, the increasing importance of the Asia-Pacific region to the U.S. economy and security, and the country's changing demographics.

Kahl is one of three new directors at research centers run by The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI). Also in September, Anna Grzymala-Busse took over as director of The Europe Center (TEC) and David Lobell became the Gloria and Richard Kushel Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment (FSE).

In separate interviews, the incoming directors outlined goals that differed in substance, but had similar objectives: to focus on issues that have historically been important to their centers while advancing work on new and emerging challenges. All three also talked about further leveraging Stanford's interdisciplinary approach to education and research.

"The centers within FSI all address research and policy challenges that are constantly changing," said Lobell, a professor of earth system science who joined FSE in 2008, three years after it was formed. "As part of FSI, we have unique opportunities to better understand the interplay of our specific area within the broader context of international security."

Michael McFaul, FSI's director, said the new leaders take over at an exciting time for their respective centers — and for FSI.

"Coming into a new academic year, I am excited about the tremendous momentum within FSI and its six research centers," said McFaul, who is also the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies. "Our ability to generate interdisciplinary, policy-oriented research, to teach and train tomorrow's leaders, and to engage policymakers has never been stronger."

Big Data & Food

As FSE's director and a researcher himself, Lobell says he's excited about the potential for technology to solve longstanding questions surrounding food security and world hunger. Satellite imagery of small-scale farming around the globe, for instance, is rapidly advancing efforts to improve crop productivity. "Historically it's been really hard to get good data," said Lobell, whose recent projects include using machine learning to identify poverty zones in rural Africa and map yields of smallholder farms in Kenya. 

"The measurement possibilities from new and different data technologies are going to be really important going forward," said Lobell, who is also looking to add expertise in water management and micronutrients, either by funding new graduate fellowships or hiring new faculty.

Europe and Beyond

For her part, Grzymala-Busse's primary goals at The Europe Center are to develop its international intellectual networks and strengthen its long-term institutional footing. "I am excited to build on our existing strengths and bring together even more historians, anthropologists, economists, and sociologists," said Grzymala-Busse, who joined Stanford faculty in 2016 and teaches political science and international studies. "Europe is ground zero for a lot of what's happening in the world, whether the rise of populism or the economic crises, and you can’t understand these developments without understanding the history, cultures, and economics of the region."

A Third Nuclear Revolution

For CISAC, international security is no longer just about nuclear security, says Kahl, who is one of two co-directors at the center; Rodney Ewing serves as the center's co-director of science and engineering, while Kahl oversees the social sciences.

Kahl says that nuclear weapons will remain a key focus for the center as North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China move to build or modernize arsenals. But, the center will also look at emerging technologies that are becoming serious threats. He cites as examples the rapid rise of cyberattacks, pandemics and biological weapons, and artificial intelligence and machine learning.

"My plan is to ensure that Stanford continues to play a profound leadership role in the most critical security issues facing the world today," said Kahl, who came to Stanford last year as the inaugural Steven C. Házy Senior Fellow, an endowed faculty chair at FSI.

Said McFaul, "We welcome three remarkable individuals with the skills and vision to guide their respective centers into the future."