Two reflections on SCI FOO 2014

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

Two excellent blog posts on SCI FOO by Jacob Vanderplas (Astronomer and Data Scientist at the University of Washington) and Dominic Cummings (former director of strategy for the conservative party in the UK).

Hacking Academia: Data Science and the University (Vanderplas)

Almost a year ago, I wrote a post I called the Big Data Brain Drain, lamenting the ways that academia is neglecting the skills of modern data-intensive research, and in doing so is driving away many of the men and women who are perhaps best equipped to enable progress in these fields. This seemed to strike a chord with a wide range of people, and has led me to some incredible opportunities for conversation and collaboration on the subject. One of those conversations took place at the recent SciFoo conference, and this article is my way of recording some reflections on that conversation. …

The problem we discussed is laid out in some detail in my Brain Drain post, but a quick summary is this: scientific research in many disciplines is becoming more and more dependent on the careful analysis of large datasets. This analysis requires a skill-set as broad as it is deep: scientists must be experts not only in their own domain, but in statistics, computing, algorithm building, and software design as well. Many researchers are working hard to attain these skills; the problem is that academia’s reward structure is not well-poised to reward the value of this type of work. In short, time spent developing high-quality reusable software tools translates to less time writing and publishing, which under the current system translates to little hope for academic career advancement. …


Few scientists know how to use the political system to effect change. We need help from people like Cummings.


… It was interesting that some very eminent scientists, all much cleverer than ~100% of those in politics [INSERT: better to say ‘all with higher IQ than ~100% of those in politics’], have naive views about how politics works. In group discussions, there was little focused discussion about how they could influence politics better even though it is clearly a subject that they care about very much. (Gershenfeld said that scientists have recently launched a bid to take over various local government functions in Barcelona, which sounds interesting.)

… To get things changed in politics, scientists need mechanisms a) to agree priorities in order to focus their actions on b) roadmaps with specifics. Generalised whining never works. The way to influence politicians is to make it easy for them to fall down certain paths without much thought, and this means having a general set of goals but also a detailed roadmap the politicians can apply, otherwise they will drift by default to the daily fog of chaos and moonlight.

3. High status people have more confidence in asking basic / fundamental / possibly stupid questions. One can see people thinking ‘I thought that but didn’t say it in case people thought it was stupid and now the famous guy’s said it and everyone thinks he’s profound’. The famous guys don’t worry about looking stupid and they want to get down to fundamentals in fields outside their own.

4. I do not mean this critically but watching some of the participants I was reminded of Freeman Dyson’s comment:

‘I feel it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands. To release the energy that fuels the stars. To let it do your bidding. And to perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky, it is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is in some ways responsible for all our troubles… this is what you might call ‘technical arrogance’ that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.’

People talk about rationales for all sorts of things but looking in their eyes the fundamental driver seems to be – am I right, can I do it, do the patterns in my mind reflect something real? People like this are going to do new things if they can and they are cleverer than the regulators. As a community I think it is fair to say that outside odd fields like nuclear weapons research (which is odd because it still requires not only a large collection of highly skilled people but also a lot of money and all sorts of elements that are hard (but not impossible) for a non-state actor to acquire and use without detection), they believe that pushing the barriers of knowledge is right and inevitable. …

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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