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Computer scientist: reveal thyself!

by Sep. 16, 2011, 4:59 PM

Empty microphone

Like the Wizard of Oz, computer scientists have largely been happy to perform their magic behind the curtain, out of public view.  However, this reticence has begun causing problems in the digital realm.

“Computer scientists face the drawbacks of lacking public awareness,” wrote an international team of computer scientists in the article “Reaching Out to the Media: Become a Computer Science Ambassador” in the March issue of the journal Communications of the ACM. “They are confronted with low enrollment numbers and low funding and to some extent, they feel ignored and misunderstood.”

As far as enrollment goes, the authors, who come from Europe, Canada and Australia, take a pessimistic view, says Douglas Fisher, an associate professor of computer science and computer engineering who returned to Vanderbilt last summer after a three-year stint as a program director at the National Science Foundation’s Division of Information and Intelligent Systems.

Douglas Fisher
Computer scientist Douglas Fisher (Courtesy of Douglas Fisher)

In fact, after a decade in the doldrums, computer science in the United States is once again a hot major, driven by the spread of social media and the success of the movie, “The Social Network.” The surge in student interest has raised hopes that it will will raise American educational achievement by producing a “Sputnik moment” comparable to the stimulus that the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957 had on increasing the emphasis on science and mathematics education in the U.S. In June, the New York Times carried a discussion on this subject “Computer Science’s ‘Sputnik Moment’?” in its Room for Debate section.

Pessimists point out that college enrollments in computer science have swung wildly up and down for the last three decades in direct correlation with students’ perception of the job market and argue that the current upswing is just another bubble. Optimists argue that computer science has a important role to play in solving the major problems that face the nation, such as revitalizing the economy, understanding and solving global climate change and preventing doomsday plagues by drug-resistant bacteria. Challenges like this could inspire talented students to pursue computer science careers on an ongoing basis.

“One of the factors that makes inspiring students extremely difficult is that so much computer science is hiding in plain sight: It is so pervasive that people don’t even think of it as computer science,” Fisher points out.

The ubiquitous nature of computer technology was recognized on campus this year with the creation of a new interdisciplinary minor in scientific computing. The minor was created by faculty from both the School of Engineering and the College of Arts and Science to help students who are interested in pursuing careers as natural and social scientists and engineers acquire the computational skills that such careers increasingly demand.

According to the ACM article, an underlying problem is that computer scientists tend to perceive science communication and public outreach as taking a lot of time and effort compared to the payoffs it provides. “In effect, there’s a tragedy of the commons – we all benefit from those who do it, so there is incentive to let other people shoulder the load.”

“This is a problem not just in computer science but in all scientific disciplines,” Fisher says. “For years it never occurred to me  to write my Congressional representatives on the importance of science research, nor did I place any emphasis on communicating the results of my research to the general public – but my service at NSF changed all that.” (Fisher reflects on his experience at NSF in the blog “First Person: ‘Life as a NSF Program Director.’”)

The ACM article was highlighted in a recent blog by Erwin Gianchandani, director of the Computing Community Consortium, an organization whose goal is to catalyze and empower the U.S. computing research community to pursue high-impact research. Gianchandani will be talking about the need for more computer scientist ambassadors, as well as the mission of the consortium, when he visits campus next Feb. 2 – 3.