A Different Kind of Impact Factor
Conference rooms aren’t usually the main attraction at a meeting, but the ceiling-high windows on the 40th floor of 7 World Trade Center offer one of the most spectacular views of downtown Manhattan that I’ve seen. It was the perfect backdrop for a panel discussion at the Gotham-Metro Condensed Matter Physics meeting held here in mid-November: the face of science in New York is changing, and graduate students and postdocs, most of them doing basic research, wanted to know about it.
In the past year, New York City has contributed seed money, land, and space to Cornell and New York University to build research centers where students can learn to work on problems with direct impact on urban life. These academic powerhouses hope to attract scientists, engineers, and computer geniuses, as well as the next generation of tech savvy companies, to New York, putting the city on the US technology map along with Boston and Silicon Valley.
Press reports have focused on how the campuses will amp up New York neighborhoods: the 2 million square foot Cornell campus, called NYCTech, will be built on Roosevelt Island, a mostly residential area connected by a single road to the borough of Queens, while the NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) will eventually be housed in a former transit authority building in a booming part of downtown Brooklyn.
There is another side to the story. If you’re a scientist or engineer wanting to live and work in one of the most exciting cities in the world, what should be on your resume? The panelists at the Gotham-Metro meeting painted a picture of the talent pool these new centers want to attract.
One hurdle is that although the campuses are run by prestigious universities, the mindset will be a departure from most academic departments. Consider the choice of partner institutions: Cornell is running NYCTech with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which has a history of encouraging faculty ties to the private sector. Similarly, NYU has partnered with its engineering school, the Polytechnic Institute of Technology (NYU-Poly), and a consortium of universities, private companies, and city agencies to run CUSP, all of which will provide a political, community-oriented, and financial flavor to the research projects students and faculty pursue.
Projects at NYCTech, for example, will focus on city infrastructure, connective media, and community health, and their raison d’être will be “Do these projects have commercial intent or provide community good?” explained panelist Rajit Manohar, a professor of computer science at Cornell and the associate dean at NYCTech.
He contrasted this with many academic departments, where researchers are motivated first and foremost by scientific curiosity. “In the university environment, you don’t have any external constraints in terms of saying ‘Is this going to have a direct impact on the world,’” said Manohar. And, as one audience member at the panel discussion pointed out, the time scales are much different. Sure, she said, many physicists are working toward quantum computers, but market-worthiness in the short term isn’t how they are judged.
But let’s say a physicist with the right demeanor—entrepreneurial and desiring his or her work to have social relevance—wants to jump from the academic world to urban applied science. What opportunities exist?
I asked Steven Koonin, the director of CUSP and a theoretical physicist by training exactly that question. Speaking with me in CUSP’s temporary offices at NYU-Poly, Koonin, who, after a thirty-year career in academia, served as Chief Scientist at British Petroleum and Under Secretary of Science in the Obama administration, explained that the center is built on the idea that cities are living laboratories: creative solutions are needed to solve problems like pollution, noise, and transportation demands that come with high population density. But cities are also the best places to find solutions: with large numbers of people comes the ability to collect lots of data.
Traditionally, social scientists have tackled an urban problem by, say, conducting a survey and then analyzing a few policies or programs, said Constantine Kontokosta, the deputy director of CUSP. The NYU center is taking a new approach. “We’re going out and trying to collect as much data as possible without necessarily having a specific problem in mind. Then we can begin to look for patterns and model the data we have and understand what it’s telling us about how cities are functioning,” he said.
This ability to see patterns and meaning in large volumes of data—albeit in the form of 180 million taxi rides per year, hundreds of millions of complaints to the city’s information hotline, or the spectrum of noise near and around construction sites—is the bread and butter of both experimental and theoretical physics.
“Physicists are good at finding [the data] and ferreting out new phenomena,” said Koonin, who likes to joke that his ideal candidate is a graduate student that helped discover the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider, but now wants to do something with more immediate social impact. Particle physicists are comfortable with mountains of data—they had to sort through 400 million proton-proton collisions to discover the Higgs boson.
CUSP has just begun accepting applications to its masters of applied urban sciences and informatics program, with plans to grow to 500 masters and Ph.D. students over the next five years. The center expects to hire around 50 faculty members.
While it waits for its own campus to be constructed, NYCTech will hold classes for masters students in “beta” mode this January, in the same building where Google has its New York offices. When the first phase of construction ends in 2018, the campus is expected to have about 75 faculty and just under 400 masters and Ph.D. students.
A few days after the Gotham-Metro meeting, Ross Boltyanskiy, a graduate student at Yale and one of the organizers for the panel discussion, speculated on the prospects for young career physicists, like himself. “Some of my theorist friends—they wouldn’t look at applied physics if I paid them a million dollars,” he says. “But I think there’s a need there. I want to be in a job where I feel useful.”
– Jessica Thomas, Editor