University News

U. initiative to focus on environment and society

If approved, a second initiative would target ‘humanity-centered robotics’

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, October 4, 2013

The proposal, based on a white paper by Amanda Lynch, includes views on water use and poilitical ecologies.

A proposal addressing environment and society has been chosen as one of the University’s two Signature Academic Initiatives to be supported under the strategic plan, serving as major hubs of scholarship and research, Provost Mark Schlissel P’15 wrote in an email to the faculty last month.

The Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative will likely become the second major initiative, pending a positive external review later this academic year.

The decisions on the Signature Academic Initiatives are the result of a process that began last fall. The process was intended to identify interdisciplinary collaborations that would draw on existing University strengths and work on questions of broad significance.

The goal was to select two broad areas of scholarly inquiry in which consistent substantial investments over the course of the next decade could earn the University recognition for its leadership and contributions to those fields, Schlissel told The Herald.


Choosing initiatives

As the strategic planning process launched last fall, Schlissel charged Sue Alcock, deputy vice president for research and professor of classics and archaeology, and Clyde Briant, professor of engineering and then-vice president for research, with leading the Signature Academic Initiatives process.

Alcock said she spent much of the fall speaking with faculty members across campus about what the University was seeking and encouraging them to submit their best ideas in the form of a two-page “white paper” in December.

The Academic Priorities Committee expected to receive no more than 30 white papers but received over 80, she said.

Over spring semester, the APC reviewed the proposals and a few thematic “clusters” emerged, Alcock said. The APC encouraged groups dealing with overlapping issues to join forces, she said.

Six finalists were selected “for additional development,” and the faculty members who had worked on those white papers were asked to submit 20-page proposals early this summer, Schlissel wrote. Schlissel, Paxson and several other administrators closed in on two goals from those finalists.


Environment and Society

The Environment and Society proposal arose from one of the groups that formed after the APC reviewed the initial white papers, Alcock said. Its core is the white paper submitted in December by Amanda Lynch, professor of geological sciences and director of the Environmental Change Institute, but it also incorporates aspects of proposals regarding water use and political ecologies, among others, Alcock said.

Environment and Society was chosen because it “cuts across a wide swath of the campus, involves faculty from many different departments — not just in the sciences but also in the social sciences and humanities — and addresses a set of issues of unarguable importance,” Schlissel said.

The Environmental Change Initiative, which is at the heart of the proposal, received “a spectacular review from some leading environmental scholars from around the country” two years ago, he said, so senior staff members felt confident it was an existing strength upon which the University could build.

Marty Downs, associate director of the ECI, said the institute has facilitated interdisciplinary research initiatives among geological sciences, the Center for Environmental Studies, ecology and evolutionary biology, economics and sociology.

But the ECI wanted to have an “even broader reach” by fostering collaborations with political science, anthropology and archaeology, among other departments, Downs said.

With the call for proposals for Signature Initiatives, “we were poised to make that pretty real,” she said.

Downs said the initiative will have five focus areas: the maximization of food production and minimization of environmental costs; sustainable and fair water use and distribution; historical lessons about the interactions between climate and ecosystems; human health and the impact of environmental stressors; and governance structures that facilitate sustainability.

She said the fifth theme is the farthest from the ECI’s current research projects and will be the product of collaboration with the Watson Institute for International Studies, the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions and the Department of Political Science.

The other focus areas are more grounded in the ECI’s existing strengths: land change science, conservation science and biogeochemistry, Downs said.

The most prevalent current model for cross-disciplinary collaborations is to “pass data from one side to the other,” Downs said, but the Environment and Society initiative is “aspiring to a model where the questions that you ask are really shaped by the knowledge and the needs and what people think is important across that disciplinary divide.”

Downs said the interdisciplinary nature of the initiative would make faculty members more competitive in their applications for funding from the National Science Foundation and other organizations.

She also said she anticipates the initiative will be attractive to individual and foundation donors and that the initiative’s leaders would actively pursue those sources of funding.

The initiative “captures the vast majority” of the strategic plan’s “Sustaining Life on Earth” integrative theme, Schlissel said.

Placing the initiative under the heading of “Sustaining Life on Earth” will allow the University “to fold in support for campus sustainability efforts and possible other activities Brown might engage in to support sustainability in Providence and beyond,” Schlissel wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald.


Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative

The Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative was intriguing because, in addition to focusing on an area of growing importance, it approaches robotics from a less technical perspective than existing robotics programs, Schlissel said. It is novel in the way it views robotics through the lenses of human cognition and human need, he added.

Professor of Computer Science Michael Littman, one of the proposal’s principal drafters, said the initiative grew out of Associate Professor of Computer Science Chad Jenkins’ research interests. Jenkins is teaching a seminar on human-robot interaction for the first time this fall.

Littman and Jenkins, together with Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Bertram Malle, covered the three main components of human-robot interaction: the hardware of the robot, the decision-making programs that govern the robot and the moral judgment and social component of how robots interact with people.

As robots become more integrated in daily life, it is important that academia take on an integral role in making sure they have a positive influence on society, Littman said.

“Unlike the rise of computing, which focused specifically on gains in productivity through new technological capability, the Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative at Brown aims to ensure science and technology innovations also enhance the quality of life for humanity across the global socio-economic spectrum,” Jenkins wrote in an email to The Herald.

“Most universities take a purely technological approach to robotics,” Jenkins wrote. “By focusing on humanity-centered robotics, Brown will be able to take a pioneering lead in the area that will enhance our global visibility in research and offer new interdisciplinary opportunities for faculty and students to collaborate towards serving a major societal challenge.”

Littman said HCRI’s tentative selection came as a surprise to the team behind the proposal. “We had pretty much at that point assumed that it was a no-go and that we were going to be kind of disassembled. We were quite surprised … that we were being considered for the external review process,” he said.


Up next

Despite the administration’s excitement about the robotics initiative, it will undergo an external review later this academic year before it is definitively selected as a Signature Initiative to assess whether the area is as much of a strength as its proponents think it is, Schlissel said.

“A small group of outside experts” will meet with the faculty behind the idea, read the proposal and meet with Schlissel, the deans of the faculty and engineering and possibly Paxson “to discuss their impressions of how important and likely to be successful … they think this effort will be at Brown,” Schlissel said.

Schlissel said the Signature Initiatives will be financed through both fundraising and allocating existing resources more efficiently, adding that the initiatives could be a strong driving force behind the next capital campaign.

Multiple administrators emphasized that the other four finalists will still play a role in the University’s future.

Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12 said the disappointment of faculty members who worked on proposals that did not get selected was tempered by the realization that their work would be incorporated into the strategic plan in other ways. “It wasn’t just going to be labor lost,” he said.

Schlissel cited the strategic plan’s emphasis on enhancing data fluency as an example of a finalist that made it into the plan in another form.

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