Krakauer chosen to lead Wisconsin Institute for Discovery

Sept. 29, 2011

by Chris Barncard

David Krakauer may have lofty plans for the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, but he believes that is exactly why he was chosen to be its first director.

“I’m ambitious, yes,” says Krakauer, a professor at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. “But the university built the building. They supported it. The vision from the beginning was grand and part of the Wisconsin idea”

Krakauer will take over leadership of WID from interim director John Wiley in November, and bring hopes to elevate the institute to a status enjoyed by few such organizations around the country.

“When people walk in, I want the feeling to be, ‘Wow, what is this? This is something completely different,’” he says. “The MIT Media Lab has that. The Santa Fe Institute has that. Bell Labs had that. I want it for the WID.”

Much of that wow factor comes with an approach to problem solving that transcends traditional divisions by scientific discipline. Trans-science, as Krakauer and his wife and collaborator Jessica Flack refer to it, is a major tenet of the research they will bring from their Collective Social Computation Group in Santa Fe to WID and the university.

“Jessica and David bring a unique perspective and a long list of accomplishments to campus,” says Martin Cadwallader, UW–Madison vice chancellor for research and dean of the Graduate School. “I am confident that with David’s leadership the Institute will achieve its full potential as a driver of trans-disciplinary research.”

The world needs more organizations like WID, according to Krakauer, where it’s understood that society’s pressing problems never correspond with a single scientific discipline.

“The future of research can not be restricted to something you would recognize as disciplinary,” says Krakauer, who has spent nine years at the Santa Fe Institute, including two as chair of the faculty. “You’ll recognize pieces of it – that’s genetics, that’s mathematics – but the whole will demand a wider view.”

The institute’s newest scientists are well acquainted with that view. Flack will co-direct (with Krakauer) a center for complex systems analysis and collective computation that builds upon their work in Santa Fe, which looked at the evolution of adaptive systems.

“Take the neurons in your brain,” Krakauer says. “One at a time, they’re useful enough. They perform individual functions. But when you aggregate many of them, billions of them, new capabilities emerge — vision, motion, even considering the past to make predictions about the future.”

From genomes to human culture to computer networks, similar processes are at work.

“The underlying mathematical description is shared by all of them. We’re interested in their algorithmic nature,” says Krakauer, who earned his doctorate in evolutionary theory and taught at Oxford and was a resident at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Flack studied evolution, behavior and cognition at Emory before joining the faculty in Santa Fe, and her work on robustness, social niche construction and collective behavior has been featured in “The Economist” and in BBC programs.

“Jessica’s approach brings together canonical ideas from social evolution, the study of networks, computation and pattern formation to study the emergence of multi-scale organization in biological and social systems,” Krakauer says. “Her trans-disciplinary approach is one I would like to see as much as possible at the WID.”

The institute’s great strength is the incredible research resource at its doorstep, according to Krakauer. UW–Madison boasts such a wide pool of world-class science faculty, laboratories, social scientists and humanists.

“I want to expand the WID to encompass elements of the social sciences and humanities,” Krakauer says. “I want them in the WID, because I don’t think you can make a meaningful contribution to society without incorporating the people who study society.”

In Santa Fe, the task of mixing representatives from different sides of the academic fence was eased by the lack of laboratory walls.

“Everyone there is a theorist. So there aren’t any labs,” creating an environment particularly conducive to blurring the line between disciplines, Krakauer says. “And this is where the WID is such an appealing challenge. Can this philosophy, looking for the intersections between our areas of expertise, could that be expanded and modified to suit Wisconsin, which is really the prototype of the large research university with the glassware and computers and large lab equipment?

“It’s an opportunity to ask if a non-traditional approach would work at the larger scale,” he says.

At the Santa Fe Institute, Krakauer introduced to the mix artists considered non-traditional even in their own fields — including author Cormac McCarthy’s turn as a research fellow.

“People were asking me regularly, “Now, why is Cormac McCarthy here?’” Krakauer says. “But the same people are gushing. They’re so excited to have talked to this person at lunch about particle physics. They’re so amazed by their responses to his questions.”

It’s a scene that completes the connections between Krakauer’s research, vision for trans-science and plan for WID: more neurons, bringing more expertise to the network, gives rise to new capabilities. Krakauer wants to establish new productive connections, and increase the energy and thought that goes into fostering exploratory research projects.

“I view the theme leaders and myself as the hosts for the community as well as the research residents,” he says. “I think it’s going to be very exciting for people who might have been put off science. It won’t be narrow and doctrinaire, but open and conscious of the breadth of contributing lines of study.”

And better equipped for leveraging the public-private partnership with the Morgridge Institute for Research.

“On of the big challenges for the director is to make risk acceptable,” he says. “In that sense, WID will be more entrepreneurial. There is a kind of venture capital flavor to what I’m thinking, in which I’m willing to let people extend themselves and fail as long as we have a home run somewhere.”

To be a productive research center is not enough.

“If the science done at WID is comparable to the science going on elsewhere at the university, by normal metrics that’s great,” Krakauer says. “But that would be an unacceptable to me. I mean, why build this beautiful new building for business as usual?”