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Ingredients of Problem-Oriented Centers and Institutes

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Georgetown, as a Jesuit institution, has special mission among universities. Like all of them, its task is to educate the next generation of leaders in many different fields, to expand and disseminate new human knowledge and understanding, and, as an institution, to contribute to the common good of the society.

Unlike some other institutions, however, Georgetown attempts to integrate these three goals. For example, it seeks to form “women and men for others” through its educational activities. This means that the education mission and the common good mission are joined together. It has courses which motivate, design, and implement community outreach and social justice interventions.

Over the past few months, some ideas that are coming to the fore from faculty and students could be characterized as attempts to coordinate not just two, but all three of the goals of the university – formation, inquiry, common good. Indeed, taken together these ideas form a logical evolutionary step for the university. They seek research leading to action serving the common good integrated into the educational activities through new Centers or Institutes.

Many of the ideas are defined around problems that face all parts of the world. They tend to be complicated issues, not yielding themselves to solutions from one campus, one school, or one department. Many of them disproportionately affect the poor or otherwise disadvantaged. These are areas like the threats of epidemic infectious diseases, the impacts of technology on society, economic and social development, environmental amelioration, and so on.

Although these ideas require very different sets of knowledge and human resources, they seem to share various needs.

Because all are interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary they will succeed only by combining talent across traditional pillars of the university. However, one can’t assemble a strong interdisciplinary group without the existence of strong disciplines.

Because the initiatives are all problem-oriented, the initiatives will succeed only if the participants are passionate about seeking solutions to the problem. The actors must leave their disciplinary allegiances at the door. They must be curious about different perspectives; they must be respectful of knowledge extracted from different fields. They must let the problem define what parts of their disciplinary knowledge is relevant.

Because the initiatives seek to integrate serving the common good and research, the participants in the initiatives need to mount activities to implement the knowledge in practical settings. Theory development must serve effective action. For some disciplines, an action step implementing knowledge in the real world is unusual.

Because of this action step, the initiatives need an intentional mix of tenure-line faculty, research faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate assistants, and professional staff. The diversity of staff is quite unlike that of a traditional teaching department.

The initiatives will profit from mixing different ways of approaching a problem. For example, they might profit from mixing design thinking, systems engineering approaches, computational intensive analysis, entrepreneurial approaches, and others.

Assembling an effective team, with alternative perspectives, but all passionate about finding solutions to an important problem requires perseverance and time, to exchange perspectives and language, in order to discover previously undetected insights from multiple fields. Effective interdisciplinary groups rarely quickly succeed on complex problems, but often only such teams can succeed.

Finally, teams solving big problems require their own physical home, where those passionate about the work can interact and teach one another. Novel mixes of students, faculty, and staff can achieve ambitious shared goals when they are “down the hall” from one another.

As we aspire to serve others more impactfully, we must build an environment that supports those aspirations.

Peer Review and Fake News

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While universities have been accused of being slow and out of touch with the modern world, they do have some redeeming features. One of them is the role of peer review in scholarly products.

An analog we see in our daily news feeds is the “fact-checker.” The fact checking features in this “fake news” era have the goal of building a trusted source of assessment. They often focus on a statement of one or two sentences uttered or written by a public figure. Most of the fact-checking reports contain hundreds or thousands of words, presenting evidence justifying a judgment of the truth of the statements made.

There are four features of this approach that deserve note. First, the needed length of the evidentiary discussion of the fact-checker probably limits readership. Second, the fact-checking is always reactive, not proactive. Third, the producers of the fact-checking are publicly known and limited often to a single author. The best of the fact checkers are careful to present multiple viewpoints and introduce the reader to the complexity of an issue. Others are less careful and are subject to criticism about their politics or ideology affecting their judgments versus only factual evidence. Fourth, the fact checkers are not necessarily experts in any of the fields they are checking. To the extent that these three features are common, the impact of the fact-checking is diminished.

In contrast to the practice in popular media, in most academic fields discernment of facts has a different structure.

1. Academic peer review occurs before and after the release, not merely after the release.
The evaluation generally precedes the release of a finding or scholarly product. For example, in grant proposals for research funding foundations, an anonymous set of reviewers read and study the proposed research. Book manuscripts are sent to reviewers who read the draft. Lengthy written reviews are given to the author. Negative reviews stop dissemination. Once the work jumps the hurdle of publication, then reviews by other scholars continue. In some fields, work that has importance is cited by later scholars.

2. The review is conducted by those deeply expert in the field of inquiry of the scholarly product, not by all-purpose “fact-checkers.”
Successful scholars in the same field as that of the author are the reviewers. There are no “all-purpose” reviewers. There are strong cultural norms within most academic fields that review work is an obligation of being an active participant in the field. Hence, the reviews are deeply informed by much prior work in the same area. The reviews probe whether the proposed work is credible and novel enough to merit support and eventual publication.

3. The review is conducted by multiple persons, not a single fact-checker.
The value of the multiple reviewers is greater assurance that diversity of viewpoints is uncovered. It is not unusual for authors reading such reviews to be surprised at some of the comments. Through this process, no one reviewer has the power to determine “truth.”

4. The review process is controlled by the media of dissemination, not by a different medium.
The authors submit their work to these media. Publishers, editorial boards, and editors organize the review of submitted products. They seek to find the novel, the important, and the credible. Only such work is published. Such quality filtering is important for the publisher to maintain their stature in the field.

Each of these differences between the fact-checking culture of modern media and the peer review process of academic fields is important. The academic process slows the release of findings, but it reduces the likelihood that bad work, unreliable findings, and poor scholarship are disseminated.

At times, especially in the internet-dominated world, when I attempt to weed through reams of information, searching for the truth, I admire the academic peer review process even more strongly.

Enhancing the Culture of Entrepreneurship at Georgetown

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One of the less widely known features of Georgetown is the volume and intensity of entrepreneurial activities ongoing at the university. The array of resources in the area is getting richer and richer.

The longest standing activities in support of entrepreneurship are located within the McDonough School of Business. The Georgetown Entrepreneurship Initiative was started in 2009, and, along with StartupHoyas, quickly proved to be a magnet for interests of students throughout the entire university. The initiative linked to alumni pretty quickly, sponsored pitch competitions, and forged networks among interested students and young alumni.

The entrance of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation onto the campus was an added impetus to thinking about entrepreneurship with common good themes — social impact with sustainable business models, organizations that achieved social benefits supported by ongoing revenue streams, and public-private partnerships of long lasting value. Much of the design thinking workshops and classes were symbiotic with other entrepreneurial activities at the university. The Center brought to Georgetown a whole new perspective on building organizations and activities that innovate for social impact.

The support of the Leonsis Family supported the Georgetown Venture Lab in 2018, a 90-person space devoted to supporting student and young alumni startups, sited within a WeWork space in downtown DC. The space is thriving, with a mix of commercial startups and nonprofit startups, all of them starting from scratch, most with interdisciplinary teams, many with mixes of technology, data, and products or services. The teams are supporting one another and the knowledge-based connection to the Hilltop campus is strong.

As Georgetown’s work in the area evolved, it has been increasingly noted that entrepreneurship is a way of thinking. It is a way of approaching problems. It values deep thinking about a problem or prospect. It rewards new approaches that produce significant improvements over the status quo. It almost always assumes starting with few assets. It is consistently seeking ideas that can expand in volume successfully. Every student could profit learning this way of thinking. Further, some of these ways of thinking can be taught. So, an undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship was launched about the same time as the Venture Lab, with a four-course requirement.

Well, not all of the action in entrepreneurship was solely campus-based. The Georgetown Entrepreneurship Alliance was formed within the Georgetown Alumni Association. This is a network of entrepreneurs who support one another, sponsor alumni pitch events, and entrepreneurship awards.

A recent development under the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Alliance umbrella is the Georgetown Angel Investment Network (GAIN).  GAIN is a membership group that facilitates the introduction of entrepreneurs to potential investors through meetings, presentations and other mechanisms. GAIN members consist of individuals who are Georgetown alumni and are interested in investing in privately held companies or ventures typically in an early stage of development. GAIN seeks to foster camaraderie within the Georgetown alumni community and to give alumni entrepreneurs potential access to capital for their ventures.

Given that entrepreneurship is a way of thinking and approaching problems to be solved, Georgetown’s eco-system is a rich one. It is distinctive in its blend of entrepreneurship for the common good and entrepreneurship for profit, side by side (and even combined in one effort). It’s something to be treasured.

Something Beyond Ourselves

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An unusual juxtaposition of events over the last few days coalesce into a single thought.

First, the US leader of a worldwide team told the story of the first visualization of a black hole (a nice 4-minute video describing can be found here).  It’s estimated that within a few days 5 billion people on earth (of the 7-8 billion) saw the image.

While the discovery itself inspired awe in everyone, a briefing for the National Science Board provided the back story. Since assembling the data to visualize the black hole so far from earth required a telescope the size of earth, the only way this could be accomplished was to form a coordinated global team of scientists. The success followed years of assembling a network of telescopes throughout the planet, recruiting over 200 astronomers and astrophysicists in many countries of the world, negotiating for completely synchronized time on the telescopes to focus on the same part of the universe – all of this to centralize reams of data from all telescopes and assemble a coherent picture of this never-before-seen entity. One can only imagine what it took to subordinate all the egos of the scientists to cooperate in a united search of discovery.

Second was a trio of moving speakers at the senior convocation at Georgetown. Each was a story of brutal life events experienced by an individual. Some were the results of intolerance to differences and struggles with health challenges; others were the result of the culture shock of entering elite higher education institutions; others were stark injustices that reigned on a young person, overcome only after years of struggle. Each of the talks involved a story of a life mission that evolved out of a deep personal tragedy or challenge. In each case the mission became improving the lives of others who may have suffered similar harms. The focus of the individual shifted from their own story to others. Their work, their passion, was serving others. They had subordinated their own past to a mission serving others.

Third, a set of commencements talks evoked the usual themes of avoiding fear of failure, discerning your passion, and so on. But there was also a more aggressive message. It led with the observation that we are living in a broken world. We are separating, one from another. We are increasingly isolated in the information we consume. We witness/commit hurtful rhetoric towards others. We see the devotion to self-interest much more frequently than devotion to others. We observe heighten sense of personal identities, worn with pride but sensitivities to attack.

Thus, some talks had a sense of urgency in a call to action by the graduates. The graduates were being called to leadership in addressing these problems earlier than prior generations. In contrast to the common message, that the graduates have time to find their way in life, one spoke of the urgency of the moment, the need for these graduates to take up the mantle of protecting democracy, equality of opportunity, and empathy towards others. The message was that time is of the essence; action must be taken now.

All of the messages above are ones in which the actors were subordinating themselves to a goal. Their own welfare was not the predominant concern; attention to others was paramount.

Solving big, pressing problems often requires subordinating to a goal beyond ourselves. Today’s world has no short supply of such potential goals.

The Voice of Faculty Doing Research – The Provost Podcast Series

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In talking with alumni and even some of our current students, I’ve detected a weakness in the Georgetown community culture. While most are fully aware of the performance of our faculty in the classroom and during office hours, they have little knowledge about the research or scholarship lives of our faculty.

At the extreme, some alumni assert that they don’t see the value of faculty doing any other task than teaching and mentoring students. From one perspective, such reactions seem quite understandable among those encountering faculty primarily in classroom. For many undergraduate alumni, their memories of faculty are dominated by interactions surrounding formal courses.

In contrast, faculty deeply understand that their research lives are important necessary ingredients to providing students the most up-to-date learning environments. Most faculty are deeply motivated to push the frontiers of their field. Their scholarship is an essential feature of their identity. They are ongoing students of their area of expertise. They are members of a global community of scholars who study similar phenomena.

Some students do report that they can perceive when faculty are describing areas in which they are actively doing research. They report that the instructors’ eyes widen, their voices become more animated, and they express a sense of excitement that is infectious. Not all classes, however, allow faculty to reveal these passionate interests to all students.

Because of this mismatch between what students see of faculty in the classroom and what faculty do in their research lives, there seems to be an opportunity for the provost office to help communicate to students and alumni more about the research lives of faculty.

Toward that end, the provost office has built a podcast series, labeled “Faculty in Research.” Each episode of the podcast is a short conversation (15-20 minutes) about why the interviewed faculty member finds his/her research area fascinating. It reviews how they choose projects to pursue. It describes how their interests change over time.

If you’re interested in learning about the inner research lives of our faculty colleagues, you can access the podcast here. Subscribing to soundcloud.com will facilitate your keeping up with new episodes of the podcast.

The first podcast welcomes Professor Deborah Tannen as guest; she reviews her work in sociolinguistics.

Let me know how you like the podcast.

Announcing the Provost Innovation in Teaching Awards

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Last August I posted an announcement that described an attempt to fill a void in recognition of exemplary performance among our faculty colleagues. It noted that while Georgetown has multiple awards for classroom teaching performance, we were not recognizing the amazing examples of innovating in pedagogy that are occurring around campus.

The awards could serve two purposes. First, we could thank those who have created and refined such innovations. Second, we could describe and highlight their innovations for other faculty encouraging similar innovations in their own work.

Well, given the great work of Vice Provost Bass and a set of faculty reviewers, I am absolutely overjoyed to note that we have completed the nominations and review process of the first annual awards.

As the nomination process evolved, some new insights emerged. It became clear that the invention of different types of awards had merit. Some of the nominations identified a group of faculty who worked together to redesign multiple courses or program curricula. They worked as an integrated team to achieve the innovation. Other nominations described the work of an individual faculty member, inventing new ways to enrich the learning in their own classes. Finally, especially in this first year, the reviewers recognized that some nominees merited recognition for consistent innovation over many years – in some sense, a career achievement of innovation.

The second change over the year was that generous donors, hearing about Georgetown’s desire to reward innovation, wanted to help us do so. We can now announce the Bill and Karen Sonneborn Innovation Fund, which permits us to offer monetary awards connected to the Provost Innovation in Teaching Awards. We will hold an event in September 2019 where the awardees will make presentations on their work in a celebration of teaching and innovation.

The awardees, in the three categories, are the following:

The Program Category Award: The Disability Studies Program

The Disability Studies Program has become a model of at least three innovations: 1) interdisciplinary coordination across the boundaries of the entire University that connects course, events, faculty and students; 2) cross-curricular coordination that links courses through “clusters” and shared assignments, projects and end of semester events that links students and student work; 3) making use of pedagogical techniques inspired by principles of universal design for learning.

Each semester, the Disability Studies (DS) program’s “cluster” approach creates a community of learning and practice by bringing together courses from fields as varied as biology, literary and cultural studies, bioethics, nursing, healthcare administration, women’s and gender studies, and anthropology around common readings and visits by scholars, performers, and advocates. The Program extends its interdisciplinary reach across GU’s campuses through new collaborations with the Med Center and The National Rehabilitation Hospital and into the community with a host of immersive learning opportunities, including internships and community-engaged experiences in conjunction with the Center for Social Justice.

Individual Category: James Freericks

Dr. Freericks’ specific innovation is how to translate complex physics classrooms from a conventional lecture format to an online format suitable for either a MOOC or a flipped classroom. Jim has been involved in both, producing GeorgetownX’s course Quantum Mechanics for Everyone, which was named a 2018 edX prize finalist, ranked ninth on Class Central’s top 50 MOOCs of all time, and was one of Class Central’s best MOOCs of 2017, and producing the flipped classroom experience for Physics 155, Mathematical and Computational Physics, for students on the hilltop.

The first project was undertaken to teach the complex subject of quantum mechanics to a wide group of students and brought part of the Georgetown course Physics 008, The Quantum World Around Us, from the classroom to the internet. The second was orchestrated to fit the specific need students have for more practice in learning the complex math required to major in Physics. Flipping the class moved the lectures outside the classroom, which is now filled with problem-solving sessions and demonstrations that actively engage the students.

Career Achievement Category: Elizabeth Hervey Stephen

Dr. Stephen is being recognized not because of one innovation, but rather for the arc of innovation over her 31-year career at Georgetown. Dr. Stephen’s innovations all center on developing a Community of Scholars. In one extended innovation, Dr. Stephen experimented with keeping her first-year proseminar students together as a cohort across four years. Assembling the four years of work starting with the students’ papers as freshmen up through the senior year, Dr. Stephen was able to analyze the inflection points at which their writing and thinking improved.

She was able to apply her knowledge studying student progress from the proseminar forward by serving as the first-ever coordinator of all 22 proseminars taught each fall in the SFS. As coordinator, she created a community of scholars among the faculty by developing shared proseminar learning goals, syllabus alignment, regular luncheons, and shared web-based resources for proseminar faculty.

Dr. Stephen’s other set of innovations include a series of experiments with online teaching that led her to teach one of the first on-line course during the academic year for undergraduates at Georgetown. She designed a course, “Border and Security Concerns,” with three interconnected sections: one section on the main campus, one section at Georgetown’s Villa Le Balze in Fiesole, Italy, and one section at GU-Q. Her reasoning was that the topic of Borders transcended campuses and that by combining the three sets of students into discussion groups that they would learn from one another.

Please join me in congratulating our colleagues on their achievements!

Infusing Ethics into Computer Science Education

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Georgetown (through the leadership of Professors Nitin Vaidya and Maggie Little) were awarded an important innovation grant from the Mozilla Foundation.  It will permit the collaboration of EthicsLab in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and various computer science courses.

I’ve written earlier about the promise that Georgetown has in building a bridge between technology and larger societal issues . This new grant is another signal that Georgetown is recognized as having unique institutional strengths in this domain.

What’s it all about? The amplification of every thought and word that is possible through the netting together of billions of people on internet platforms has no historical precedent. The instantaneous nature of the amplification exceeds the speed of all prior ages of human interaction. Unfortunately, the good intentions of a garage startup are difficult to maintain when billions of persons are affected by its activities.

Institutions touching myriad parts of societies throughout the world encounter unique challenges. We have already seen both deeply harmful effects and wondrous benefits of new technologies. Looking forward, it seems appropriate to rewrite Dickens a bit to note it can be the best of times; it can be the worst of times. Attention to the societal impact of new technology, guided by explicit values, is required for “the best of times.”

There has been much discussion of the slowness of regulatory behavior to ameliorate some of the harmful emergent behaviors on the internet. However, even before one begins to conceptualize rules and regulations, societies need norms (unwritten standards of behavior) to guide the rulemaking.

Some of the capabilities of internet platforms are so unprecedented that even norms cannot keep up with the changes. My behavior can affect the fate of others in ways for which no norms have been articulated. Rumors that were shared in private in side conversations can now be instantly known by all. Many can trace the location of others minute by minute. “Private” behaviors are routinely public.

Further, empirical analytic techniques can use vast volumes of data to predict events and outcomes of processes second by second. Machine learning algorithms can control devices and vehicles sufficiently well that human intervention is less frequently needed. Completely autonomous processes are imagined.

But all such algorithmic approaches require data to build the predictive models. Such data must be collected before it can be used. What data to collect? Deep understanding of the processes is required to collect data to build good algorithms. Common examples of failure from using flawed data abound. Arrest data-based algorithms for where police should be deployed exacerbates any racial or socioeconomic bias in police behavior. Using mortgage default geo-data to build decision algorithms for loan applications suffers the same biases that produced the geographical spread of defaults in the original design. Biased data sets to train algorithms produce biased algorithms. Data use without explicit values can bring on “the worst of times.”

So, circling back to the good news about an innovation grant to Georgetown – as we educate the next generation of leaders in technology, Georgetown must confront the central questions of how to use technology for good. New ethical puzzles confront us right now. Others will confront us with each new development.

Society is now facing the effects of too much technology developed without attention to the ethical implications of its uses. With its decades of contributions to applied ethics and its growing bench of talent in computer science, Georgetown can lead in designing technical curricula that raise questions of values and norms at the point of development.

Appreciation of Uncertainty Grows with Deeper Knowledge

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“Although this may seem a paradox, all exact science is dominated by the idea of approximation. When a man tells you he knows the exact truth about anything, you are safe in inferring that he is an inexact man. … It is characteristic of those matters in which something is known with exceptional accuracy that, in them, every observer admits that he is likely to be wrong, and knows about how much wrong he is likely to be.”

The Scientific Outlook, Bertrand Russell, 1931, Norton, pp 63-64.

Except for the gendered pronouns, this 1930’s quote still rings true. But the limitation of the observation to science is probably not legitimate. For example, scholars in the humanities who are investigating the intended meaning of texts usually hold uncertainties about the currently favored interpretations. Indeed, deep understanding of any field generally entails knowledge of all the disputed truths, rejected theories, and partial replications of prior findings. This knowledge leavens one convictions.

In this regard, scholarly cultures are quite distinct from much of modern society. It would be unusual for an entrepreneur pitching a new idea to a set of venture capitalists to emphasize the unknowns in their startup’s plans. In place of that, the “fail fast” culture argues to react quickly to counter-evidence and morph the idea to adapt to the new knowledge. But the “fail fast, break things, disrupt” culture rewards certainty of action. As another example, today’s modern media presentations tend not to emphasize uncertainties. The talking heads on cable news speak with certainty on all their views. Their “opponent” talking head speaks opposite points with equal certainty. Rare is the politician who details the uncertainties surrounding any policy position. Indeed, the admission of ignorance about some facet of the topic at hand is not often seen in the public sphere.

In this regard, it is interesting to note the social psychological literature on persuasive conversations. A common finding is that speakers are judged more persuasive when, on their own, they introduce a counter argument to their own argument and then refute it. This is judged more influential in discerning what is true than speaker attempting to rebut the counterargument after another raises it first. This finding doesn’t seem to have penetrated public discourse. However, it is common in scholarly work to actively discuss the limitations of a study’s findings prior to reporting the findings themselves.

This mismatch between the larger society’s norms of persuasive behavior and that of scholars seems, however, in some situations to limit scholars’ influence. Decisions must be made. They must be made on the facts available at the time of the decision regardless of how inadequate they might be. Decisions under uncertainty are the most common to be made. Enumerating all the sources of uncertainty about current knowledge often doesn’t lead to effective decisions.

So much of these differences are a matter of style of dialogue. Wouldn’t be interesting if media moderators would ask their talking head guests what uncertainties they have about their opinions, what could happen that makes their predictions of the future wrong, what information would be required to change their minds?

And then on the scholarly side, despite all the attention that is given to the uncertainties in their findings, wouldn’t be interesting to force those well-versed in the uncertainties to make the decision based on the current state of knowledge?

Finally, how precious to all of us are the minds that can move back and forth between these two domains with equal facility!

Imprinting by Mentors

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I often have the privilege of talking with faculty about their research lives. In most of these conversations, some talk about their graduate student experiences. I’m struck at the important role that mentors play in the early career of many PhD’s.

Many faculty, looking back at the formative pre-PhD time, remember individual moments when the mentor taught them what level of rigor was required in their field. These are memories that were sometimes painful – returned drafts filled with markups, pointed critiques of flawed logic, directives to write more succinctly, or attacks on the superficiality of the work. They are also memories of deep pleasure, when the young student first earned the praise of the mentor, a moment when the mentor said that the student had accomplished something worthwhile.

Another common memory was how the mentor shaped the PhD student’s assessment of what was a good problem to pursue in their own research. A common guidance was, “If you were completely successful in the project, what would we know that we don’t know now?” Of special import is whether the target of the project had promise of generating several follow-up projects. “What are the different outcomes of this project? Can you imagine a follow-up project that would result from each of those outcomes?” This kind of guidance was viewed as key in helping the student conceptualize an integrated set of projects over time. For some faculty, these discussions defined several years of work.

Some faculty also point out the weakness of their mentor on this score: “My mentor gave me the problem for my dissertation.” In retrospect, such mentees had to teach themselves how to identify a good research question. Some remember feeling somewhat lost in the early years of their independent scholarship. Similar problems arise sometimes with mentors who co-publish with their mentees over many years. At the worst, these sometimes stifle the increasing ability of the young scholar to develop their own skills at discerning good research questions to pursue.

A few faculty remember their pre-doc days under the influence of two mentors, with possibly different perspectives on the research project of the student. They recall navigating between the two, sometimes attempting to blend together the two viewpoints. They remember sometimes awkward meetings of the three of them. They remember getting contradictory advice from the two. Some think that they own careers have blended the two perspectives together in some way.

Some of the relationships between a PhD mentor and mentee last for years. For some faculty looking back, they can remember a moment when their mentor began to treat them more as a colleague than a student. Mentees often develop expertise in new methods or techniques in the field. They then teach these new methods to their mentor. So, sometimes the teaching and guidance becomes mutual for the two. Gradually, the pair becomes more complementary of one another.

What is notable in these discussions is how impactful these mentoring experiences are to entire lifetimes of scholars. The imprinting of mentors on the lives of the mentee is deep and long-lasting.

The Three-Story Structure of Theory and Applications

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I’m told that one country’s government weather service is a three-story building. On the top floor are theoretical climatologists and meteorologists. They are striving to elaborate the theory that underlies human understanding of the earth’s weather systems and how they change over time. Their work is highly technical and at times has no stated purpose other than satisfying the curiosity of the scientist attempting to find answers to puzzling questions. As they do their work, they are searching for fundamentally new insights. The failure rate of the top floor is high, but the payoff of new developments can be transformative.

The second story of the building is populated by modelers of real weather components across the globe. They are attempting to use newly formulated theories to design new procedures for forecasting weather and modeling climate. They test their models on real data assembled over time, indirectly evaluating new theoretical developments. As they attempt to improve on current techniques, they are pushing the frontier of practice. Many times, they examine historical data as the evidentiary base on which to make their judgments. The success rate of the second floor generally exceeds that of the third floor, but its successes tend most often to be incremental improvements. When the second-floor researchers are successful, they tend to solve some weakness of the existing body of practice, through testing new practices against the old.

The ground floor is populated by weather forecasters, applied meteorologists, who provide the public, the government, and companies the daily prediction of temperature, precipitation, wind, humidity, and cloud coverage throughout the country. When they perform at their peak, they are implementing newly proven innovations from the second floor. To the general population, they are the face of the weather service. Hence, the staff on the first floor receive the vast majority of the appreciation for correct predictions and almost all criticisms for incorrect ones.

Thus, the three stories move from theory to application. One building. Vastly different enterprises. I’ve assumed the bottom floor was chosen to be application-oriented because it is the group with the greatest outreach to diverse publics. They respond to “walk-in” trade.

Of course, the value of the three floors depends on the use of the stairways linking them together. Is there movement across floors? Is the movement uni-directional? Are the theoreticians made aware of failures on the first floor? Are the first-floor forecasters aware of the assumptions in the newest model promoted by the second floor? Are there any people who work on multiple floors?

Finally, the variation in visibility of the three floors can affect a superficial evaluation of the product of the building. It’s easy for someone who knows nothing about climate and weather to assume that the first floor houses the most important group in the building. After all, that floor delivers the products and services of the entire building. If there are funding pressures, following that logic, the first floor must be privileged over the higher floors.

Such logic ignores the knowledge that the third floor is the origin of what the first floor accomplishes in future years. Emptying out the second and third floors is not unlike a struggling farm unit deciding to preserve only the harvesting equipment and stopping purchase of seeds. It might be cost efficient for one season, but then it’s out of business. Similarly, with each new introduction of devices and platforms from technologists, it’s tempting to view them as autonomously produced inventions. We can easily make the mistake by judging that only such visible innovation work is of importance. Yet many of those innovations depend on basic science developments years earlier.

Much of basic research and scholarship is academia’s third floor. While it’s easy to criticize a publication that is read by only 100’s of people, publications exactly like that can be identified as the seed of new ideas and new ways of thinking that transform the lives of large populations decades later. There is value in the constant pursuit of pushing the edges of human knowledge. Future populations will live at that edge.

We don’t do well with a one-story building.

Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202) 687.5103provost@georgetown.edu

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