Five leading computing societies and associations today released a letter they’ve jointly sent to House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) expressing their concern over mischaracterizations of research on information diffusion in online social networks at Indiana University. The work has come under fire from Smith and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) who believe it may represent an affront to free speech. (Jeffrey Mervis in Science Magazine has good coverage of the controversy.) The joint letter argues that the work is focused on significant problems in computer science and calls on the committee to consult subject-matter experts and not rely on media mischaracterizations as they investigate the work further.
The letter reads:
November 4, 2014
To: The Honorable Lamar Smith, Chair; The Honorable Eddie Bernice Johnson, Ranking Member; House Committee on Science, Space and Technology
Dear Chairman Smith and Ranking Member Johnson,
As representatives of the computing community, we are dismayed by recent mischaracterizations and misplaced criticisms of research on information diffusion in online social networks at the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at Indiana University. This work is focused on significant research problems in computer science, and in no way represents “a Federally-funded assault on free speech.”
The research project is a scientific study of how information spreads in social networks – a communication landscape that is fundamentally different than anything that has come before. It uses automated sentiment analysis algorithms and other network analysis tools to study real-time Twitter streams of millions of publicly available tweets to attempt to understand how information is spread across the network.
The work can help internet users discover where information they glean from the web or social networks has come from – did it arise organically, did it originate from authoritative sources, or has it been spread by bots designed to “game” social networks and spread misinformation? The work can provide great value to internet users in the U.S. by helping them understand the source of the messages they receive, allowing them to potentially avoid malware or phishing attacks.
The work can also have great value to other researchers studying the flow of information across the network, including a better understanding of why some memes travel faster than others, and how bad actors can game the network to their advantage.
And we believe the work can have value to national security and law enforcement as well: helping explain how movements organize across the globe using these new communication tools, helping understand the effectiveness of government communications for disaster preparedness and response, and helping authorities understand how frauds propagate.
We do not believe this work represents a threat to free speech or a suppression of any type of speech over the internet. The tools developed in the course of this research are capable of making no political judgements, no prognostications, and no editorial comments, nor do they provide any capability for exerting any control over the Twitter stream they analyze. The work is not a database tracking hate speech, or even defining it. It simply visualizes the patterns of flow of publicly available information in the Twitter stream.
We ask that as you exercise your oversight responsibilities over the National Science Foundation, which funded much of this research, you call on subject-matter experts to help guide your investigation and not let media mischaracterizations of the work color your effort. We commend you for your long support of fundamental computer science research and your appreciation of the value of the Federal investment. We trust that your investigation will draw on your long experience with the computing community, and we stand ready to help in any way that we can.
Dr. J Strother Moore
Computing Research Association (CRA)
Dr. Thomas G. Dietterich
Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI)
Dr. Alexander L. Wolf
Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
Dr. Irene Fonseca
Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM)
Dr. Brian Noble
USENIX Association (USENIX)
Members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology;
The Honorable Kevin McCarthy;
The Honorable Nancy Pelosi;
Update (11/7/14): The letter has generated some positive press.
- Patrick Thibodeau’s coverage in Computerworld: Computer scientists say meme research doesn’t threaten free speech
- Mario Trujillo in The Hill: Congress should defer to experts on ‘Truthy,’ computer scientists say
- Jeffrey Mervis in Science Magazine: What does it take to get your grant targeted by Congress?
By now, most in the computing community are no doubt aware that Microsoft in September announced the closing of Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, one of 12 research labs (now 11) the company runs around the globe. The lab’s primary focus was on distributed computing and included research on privacy, security, protocols, fault-tolerance, large-scale systems, concurrency, computer architecture, Internet search and services, and related theory — work considered by many in the community to be exceptional. So it was with some surprise that researchers learned on September 18th that the lab would close the following day — part of new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s workforce realignment strategy announced in July that will see the company ultimately shed 18,000 jobs by the end of the year.
Given the lab’s focus, the theoretical computer science community felt the sting of the closing particularly hard. Members of ACM’s SIGACT Committee for the Advancement of Theoretical Computer Science led an effort — an effort that ultimately grew beyond the SIGACT community — to send an open letter to Microsoft Executive Vice President for Technology and Research, Harry Shum and VPs for Research Peter Lee and Jeannette Wing, urging them to open a dialogue with the community about the closing and “reduce the damage that has been caused by the shutdown.” The letter was originally co-signed by 28 researchers and posted on the Theory Matters blog, and has garnered the support of many more in the blog’s comment section.
Tonight, Shum provides Microsoft’s perspective on the shutdown with a “Microsoft Open Letter to the Academic Research Community” posted on the Microsoft Research blog. In it, he reaffirms Microsoft’s commitment to fundamental research and its importance “for the long-term viability of our company, our industry and our society” and he pledges that Microsoft will play a part in community efforts to help those impacted by the cuts.
Both letters are worth reading. The dialogue between MSR and the academic community moving forward will be important to both sides. Despite the cuts, Microsoft Research remains one of the largest research institutions of its kind in the world, employing over 1,000 people, and the company still maintains 5 labs in the U.S. The connection between the company and the academic community is a critical part of advancing the field — a healthy MSR is important for the academic community, and a vigorous academic research community provides a healthy flow of people and ideas to MSR.
The group of universities, scientific societies, industry groups, and think tanks behind the 2014 Golden Goose Awards announced winners throughout the summer and pioneering computing researcher Larry Smarr is one of the recipients. As we’ve noted in previous years, the Golden Goose Awards “demonstrate the human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact.” Another way to describe the awards is they are to show what “silly-sounding science” has given back to the country, and that return on investment is often very big and unanticipated.
You can read in detail about Dr. Smarr’s award backstory on the Golden Goose Awards website, but the gist is that in the early 1980s Dr. Smarr was performing modeling of black hole collisions in space, a wholly curiosity driven area of research. The modeling requires massive computing power, something not readily available to the American university community. Smarr became a strong advocate that the country invest more in supercomputing infrastructure available to the academic community, who otherwise had to fight to get time on machines devoted to defense applications like nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship. In response, the National Science Foundation established a set of university-based supercomputing centers for researchers across the country to use for their research purposes. These centers would form the basis of the NSFnet, one of the significant predecessors to the Internet (Smarr was a big proponent of establishing the NSFnet too). So, a curiosity about what happens when black holes collide helped unleash a revolution in computing power, computational science, and networking that, in turn helped establish visualization and modeling as drivers of scientific discovery (right alongside theory, observation and experiment) – not to mention the Internet as we know it, and the internet web browsers, both part of the success of the NSF supercomputing centers. And Larry Smarr had a key role in all of it.
The other recipients of the GGAs were a medical researcher team whose research into massaging rat pups led to treatments for premature infants, and a team of economists, whose research into auctions and game theory helped to raise billions of dollars for the U.S. Treasury through the FFCC spectrum auctions. It’s almost sport in Washington to find silly-sounding award abstracts and use them as a cudgel to bash science agencies for spending money, but these award winners are excellent examples of why the Federal investment in fundamental research is so important to innovation, that it pays off in extraordinary ways, and that it’s not so easy to judge the value of the award by its subject (or by the one paragraph abstract that accompanies it).