While a Swiss resort might seem like the perfect winter getaway, the World Economic Forum conference, held Jan. 25-29 in Davos, Switzerland, had nothing to do with skiing and fine chocolate. For the four professors who went — Professor of Neuroscience John Donoghue PhD’79 P’09 P’12 MD’16, Professor of Applied Mathematics Jan Hesthaven, Professor of Classics Susan Alcock and Assistant Professor of Biology Casey Dunn — the conference was a flurry of powerful and influential people, eye-opening presentations and opportunities to present their own work in an “IdeasLab” entitled “Decoding Data with Brown University.”
According to the forum’s website, the annual conference brings together the brightest minds from every discipline to present solutions to global problems.
The selection process is “a little mysterious,” Hesthaven said. It involves representatives of the forum listening to presentations by various professors at select colleges. President Ruth Simmons wrote in an email to The Herald that she, Vice President for International Affairs Matthew Gutmann P’14 and faculty members advise the selection of professors who attend the forum.
At the conference, Simmons joined a panel discussion focusing on “human capital and competitiveness in the global economy” and served as the moderator of two panels, one on the relationship between art and social inequality and the second on using large amounts of data, according to a University press release.
The four professors all presented research “on the way the use of data is a sort of interesting and increasingly important direction of research, education and discovery,” Hesthaven said.
Alcock said that while all of the professors knew each other beforehand, she had never worked with any of them before.
The IdeasLab took place Jan. 25 and included short presentations by each professor before participants broke into smaller groups to ask the professors questions.
Though each professor’s presentation was different, the overall theme was the challenge of making use of the mass of data in today’s world. The professors also presented at other panels relevant to their fields.
“It meant a lot to me to get a humanities perspective into the conversation,” Alcock said. “There were more arts and culture events at Davos than I expected.” She talked about data interpretation at her excavation site in Petra, Jordan, as part of her presentation at IdeasLab.
Hesthaven’s presentation analyzed the effects of science’s transition from reductionism — a focus on breaking things down into smaller parts — to examining larger processes on data-driven modeling. He said he noticed the business world’s increased appreciation of harder science and math skills at the conference.
Dunn’s speech explained how new technologies eliminated the trade-off between “breadth versus depth” in data, and how larger-sized data sets “allow us to further explore new areas of inquiry,” he said.
“In the end, the IdeasLab is just an hour and 15 minutes out of a five-day conference,” Dunn said. Much of the interaction and discussion happened outside of scheduled events, but the presentations served as “anchors for really interesting conversation,” he said.
Bringing it back to Brown
Hesthaven said he believes Brown is ahead of the curve in teaching analysis compared to many other universities, but it “still has a lot to learn in teaching students how to use and manipulate data to make decisions.”
“There is no reason for you to remember the capital of the European countries because you can find that on your phone,” Hesthaven said. “It’s much more important to understand how you can use that information.”
He said the University has to learn to train students to “look at data and tell stories” because future jobs will rely on data analysis. Big companies first need to become better at data sharing, especially with their lower tier partners, rather than just accumulating data for themselves, Hesthaven added. He said companies cannot expect educators to teach students how to address problems without sharing data because problems and data are unique to each real life situation.
While big data analysis is a “pervasive skill,” it is “not a panacea” to displace skills already taught, and it does not need to be tailored to each discipline, Dunn said. Educators should approach it like a basic skill, such as writing or math, he said.
Hesthaven said employers attending the conference are starting to look for these skills and Brown “would be silly not to listen to them.”
This semester, these professors have begun incorporating the ideas of big data into their teaching. Alcock said her class on Petra will address the subject, and Hesthaven has launched the “Computation Across Campus Initiative,” which aims to get big data analysis into all disciplines, Alcock said.
CEOs and ‘side shows’
Hesthaven said the academic sessions were “a bit of a side show” to the conference’s main perk for the corporations attending — having the world’s most influential people all in one place to wheel and deal.
“It’s all about being at the same place at the same time, even just for a couple of days,” Hesthaven said. “If you need to talk to the Prime Minister of Thailand and the King of Indonesia and a couple of venture capitalists, you can get them all in the same room in one morning and get it done right there.”
But beyond the backdoor deals between the diplomats and businesspeople, Alcock said the conference broke down the normal barriers and prevailing stereotypes that impede interactions between academics and CEOs.
Dunn said he believes the conference is a “very effective” way to highlight the University’s strength to the greater global community.
He said people know Brown as an acclai
med liberal arts university, but some are “surprised to hear about the caliber of research done here.”
Simmons wrote the conference has not yet resulted in any specific business partnerships, but “there are many linkages that develop at Davos — between Brown and other nonprofits, between Brown and prominent individuals around the world.”
She said the conference was a good way to reconnect with Brown alumni who attend the conference and strengthen their participation with the University.
Simmons said she would also like to have the global street artists from a panel she moderated visit the University, adding that the conference has spurred guest lectures.
Media moguls and monks
While the resort was guarded by high security, inside, the atmosphere was relaxed. Alcock said participants were given wired badges that stored itineraries and contact information and could be swiped at kiosks, reducing logistical worries.
With endless food, coffee and shuttles to different events, Alcock said the event was designed to promote conversation. Alcock and Dunn both described the interactions as like “speed dating.”
According to the professors, Davos facilitated quite a few interesting interactions.
Hesthaven said when he attended a presentation by researchers trying to model the brain from the bottom up using a computer, a Buddhist monk in the front row asked, “Where is the free will in the computer?”
While directing alums to a Brown-hosted party at the conference, Alcock described the location as “just to the left of Arianna Huffington.” Remembering the media mogul holds an honorary doctorate from Brown, Alcock said she thought “what the hell” and offered Huffington a glass of champagne on behalf of the University. Huffington politely smiled, shook Alcock’s hand and stopped by the party.
Dunn said he was in the midst of conversation with someone, when the other person abruptly got up and walked away mid-sentence, leaving him alone with a “sad bowl of chips.” Dunn turned around and after seeing a swarm of security agents, said he felt better as he realized he had been abandoned for Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister of Israel.
Dunn said he felt worse for Bill Gates, who was accosted “by anyone under 40 who had ever practiced writing an elevator pitch.”
The professors also got celebrity treatment, receiving foreign chocolates and a Swiss necessity, metal shoe treads to prevent weather-related injuries, Alcock said.
Dunn said he was impressed that the conference ran “like a Swiss watch.” But he added that the forum did retain “some banality of a normal conference,” as Davos was “not a magical siphoning” of world power.