The Many Hats of Kelly Sims Gallagher

At the outset of her term as interim dean, The Fletcher School spoke with Kelly Sims Gallagher about her career in policy and academia
Kelly Sims Gallagher presents a Climate Policy Summer Academy participant with a certificate
Kelly Sims Gallagher hands out certificates to Fletcher's Climate Policy Summer Academy participants. Pictured is Kwame Ababio, who is starting in Fletcher's PhD program this September and currently works at the African Union.

Kelly Sims Gallagher is a known entity around The Fletcher School. A MALD and PhD alumna, she co-directs the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy with Professor Jenny Aker and in 2016 founded the Climate Policy Lab. From 2020-2023, she served as academic dean. Now, as dean ad interim, she is ushering in a year of Fletcher pride for the school’s 90th anniversary.

Throughout her decorated career in academia and public service, climate policy, economic development, and global affairs have been her north stars. For Gallagher, the roots of this are personal.

“I grew up in rural Colorado, in the mountains, and I think I took a clean and natural environment for granted as a child,” said Gallagher.

She moved to Los Angeles to attend Occidental College in the early 1990s, and her perspective on climate evolved within her first months in California; she repeatedly got pneumonia during her freshman year, and her doctor recommended she stop exercising outside because of the air pollution.

With a keen interest in the end of the Cold War and what would come next, she had already declared a major in diplomacy and world affairs. Eager to understand the pollution she had become so intimately aware of, she designed a second major in environmental studies.

An interdisciplinary thinker from the start, she developed a commitment to learning about both climate and global affairs. Awarded a Truman Scholarship, she committed to a career in public service, and the summer after graduating from college, she moved to Washington D.C. for an internship. To her delight, she was assigned to work for Vice President Al Gore, whose book, Earth in the Balance, had influenced her thinking.

In her work with the vice president’s office, Gallagher researched why enacting policy to address climate change was significantly harder than addressing stratospheric ozone depletion. The project fascinated her, leading her to the NGO Ozone Action, where she later became Science Policy Director. Through this work, she attended international climate negotiations including the round in 1997 that established the Kyoto Protocol.

“I really loved that work, but the Truman Foundation kept telling me if I didn't go back to graduate school, I was going to lose the scholarship,” she said.

She sat down to write her graduate school applications, and previous conversations with a professor from Occidental guided the way.

“One of my advisors at Occidental was a Fletcher alum, a Russia expert. He had always put in my mind that I should think about Fletcher; of course, I applied and came here to do my MALD and then my PhD.”

Knowing that China would be hugely influential, not only in global affairs but also in global environmental outcomes, she enrolled at Fletcher eager to study Chinese policy. As her understanding of Chinese politics deepened, she more viscerally understood the essence of the climate challenge in global affairs was finding ways to reconcile reasonable economic aspirations with protecting the environment.

Fletcher allowed her to investigate these intersections, and her studies illuminated the next steps in her academic career. During her MALD, she focused on East Asian studies, environment and development, and negotiation. She studied Chinese and spent a summer in China in a language immersion program. She moved to the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard on a predoctoral fellowship, where she completed her PhD and wrote her dissertation on the development of the Chinese automobile industry. She spent months visiting automobile factories across China, ranging as far west as Chongqing, south to Shenzhen, and east to Shanghai and Tianjin, and in so doing witnessed and observed China’s early and massive efforts to jump start export-led economic development through technology transfer and manufacturing.

She continued at the Kennedy School on a postdoctoral fellowship, began teaching, and became the director of the school’s Energy Technology Innovation Policy program. When a faculty position opened at Fletcher in 2009, she returned as an associate professor.  She wrote her second book on the globalization of the clean energy industry after spending a pre-tenure sabbatical at Tsinghua University in 2010 where she investigated the emergence of clean energy industries in China, including gas turbines, coal gasification, solar PV, and electric vehicle batteries. 

Shortly after receiving tenure, she was invited to join the Obama administration and returned to Washington D.C. to serve in The White House and State Department as a senior policy adviser. Her appointment came at a critical moment for the country; she helped negotiate two agreements between the United States and China on climate in 2014 and 2015.

“The academic expertise and the relationships that I had in China undeniably helped with the negotiation process that led to the U.S.-China Joint Announcement,” said Gallagher. “Furthermore, the training I'd gotten at Fletcher on negotiation ended up being very useful to me multiple times during the negotiation process.”

“As we engaged with the Chinese, I'd realize I was using tools and strategies I had learned in my negotiation classes at Fletcher to make that negotiation process go more smoothly, trying to, for example, identify mutual gains, or defining the ZOPA––the zone of possible agreement,” she added. “You never know how you're going to use things you learn at Fletcher.”

While the agreements brokered between the U.S. and China paved the way for the 2015 Paris Agreement, Gallagher’s time spent working on other bilateral relationships proved important for her own career, and Fletcher’s history, as well.

“It was clear to me that many developing countries didn't have the analytic tools and capacities to make smart choices about their own climate policy, or even to do their own target setting. I had the idea of founding the Climate Policy Lab when I was doing that work,” she said. “I thought that that was a contribution that I and we could make to the world.”

Upon her return to campus, she established the Climate Policy Lab inside CIERP. Since then, the center has grown by leaps and bounds; currently, 12 pre- and postdoctoral research fellows from all over the world, as well as 10 faculty from across Tufts and six faculty from other institutions, are investigating how to reconcile climate policy and economic development in 11 developing countries, including India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Brazil.

Throughout her tenure as faculty, Gallagher has brought her varied, multidisciplinary interests and research to classrooms and campus lectures. She has developed a profile in innovation studies and has taught courses from “International Energy Policy” to “Innovation for Sustainable Prosperity.”

From 2020 to 2023, Gallagher brought her dynamic thinking and problem solving to the role of academic dean, which proved to be critically important. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role required leadership through changing guidelines and instructional modalities. Through it, she kept an even course and remained committed to the goals she’d set at the outset of her term.

She helped to establish the MGA degree program, and led reviews of the MIB and GMAP programs, threading the needle to adapt the programs to teach at the cutting edge without disrupting effective and beloved program features. She directed important enhancements to the curriculum, appointing Alnoor Ebrahim as associate dean for curriculum and Karen Jacobsen as associate dean for research.

Together, they introduced comprehensive enhancements to the school’s programs. To enhance the school’s curriculum, Ebrahim pioneered the pedagogy café for faculty to share best practices with each other, and together they implemented best practices on the diversification of faculty, including devising a new hiring guide. This spring, she recruited new five new faculty, who will bring to campus their expertise in security studies, economics, negotiation, investment law, and East Asian democracy.

The team cultivated resources for Fletcher’s research institutes and supported faculty for success in both teaching and research. Dean Gallagher has been a tireless advocate for faculty research and in in the 2022 fiscal year supported faculty in achieving 7.3 million dollars in new sponsored research grants.

Throughout the many triumphs of her career, Gallagher has always come back to Fletcher, and her appointment as interim dean marks the latest chapter in her ongoing relationship with the school.

“I'm really feeling excited about the year ahead,” said Gallagher. “We have a fabulous faculty. We have a dedicated administrative staff. I know we're capable of having a wonderful year.”

As the school prepares to celebrate its 90th anniversary, Gallagher will be wearing her many hats to celebrate.

“As an alum, and faculty member, and now interim dean, I am honored to celebrate our past accomplishments and also look forward to what could come next for the Fletcher School.”

Read more about the MALD program and Fletcher’s Climate Policy Lab.