Solving the greatest challenges of our planet – 4.16.21
Letter from Dean Sive - April 16, 2021

Dear College of Science Faculty and Staff,

A highlight of the comedy show Portlandia was the Rat Group. And my favorite skit is where the Group comes across a book about them, emphasizing negative attributes like diseases Rats carry, and that they bite people. The Rats decide to counter this perception by writing a book emphasizing negative aspects About People. Their book is very small, because their typewriter is rat-sized, but they take it to the bookstore and place it for sale. The Rats triumphantly watch as a child takes their book, and celebrate that ‘all it takes is one kid!’. Of course, they will soon realize that it actually takes more to solve their complex problem.

We’re surrounded by complex problems, in science, in society and often across science and society. If you’re looking for a definition, complex problems are solvable only through multiple approaches and disciplines’. You know some of the complex problems waiting to be solved – climate change, racism, homelessness, ‘a cure for cancer’. When these problems become political, there is pressure to find a quick fix, but that does not exist, and the absence is construed as failure.

The challenge is that addressing complex problems is well, complex. For one thing, what is presented as a single problem may be many that have been bundled together. For another, complex problems almost always have multipart solutions, and even these may not fully solve the problem. A key example, ‘climate change’includes a large set of negative outcomes linked to excess atmospheric CO2 and methane, an unanticipated impact of industry and technology. Climate change is not readily reversible, so is now a multifaceted problem, with adverse effects on a vast number of species, land regions, oceans, and societies, especially across systemically marginalized groups. These many not-so-small aspects must be addressed to ‘solve’ climate change. It’s a huge challenge.

To make a complex problem more accessible, there is a groundswell of ‘convergence’ approaches, where disparate fields contribute expertise to coalesce solutions. Underscoring this is our important Coastal Sustainability Workshop, supported by the NSF ‘Convergence Accelerator Program’ and led by faculty members Geoff Trussell, Jen Bowen, Randall Hughes, Steven Scyphers and John Coley.

Powerful ways to define a convergence landscape are also coming out of our outstanding Northeastern Network Science Institute. A recent Nature article and ‘Quote of the Day’ from PhD graduate Sarah Shugars and Assistant Professor Sam Scarpino discusses ‘betweeness centrality’ – that promotes connections intrinsic to solving complex problems.

Addressing complex problems is how College of Science members are solving the Greatest Challenges of our Planet, one of our stated College goals. We understand that there are usually no quick fixes, that ‘all it takes is one kid’ is generally not true, but that step by step, we can uncover solutions to crucial problems. Thank you to everyone, for your enormous ingenuity and work towards addressing these complex challenges.

Finally, for our Muslim College members, Ramandan Mubarak, a blessed Ramadan!

Best regards,

dean signature

Hazel Sive PhD
Dean, College of Science
Northeastern University