Story Banner Alex Vespignani

Network scientists lead congressional briefing

by Jason Kornwitz

Net­work sci­ence has the poten­tial to solve major national chal­lenges in health, secu­rity, and sus­tain­ability, said two North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sors in a briefing on Tuesday after­noon in Wash­ington, D.C. The field, they said, is poised to con­front key soci­etal prob­lems ranging from smoking and obe­sity to ter­rorism and deadly pandemics.

“We live in an increas­ingly inter­con­nected world in which all of our sys­tems are inter­de­pen­dent,” said Alessandro Vespig­nani, a world-​​renowned sta­tis­tical physi­cist and the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­enceCol­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, and Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences. “Without a deep under­standing of how com­plex net­works work,” he said, “it would be dif­fi­cult to take a holistic approach to solving these issues.”

Vespig­nani addressed more than 60 con­gres­sional and fed­eral agency staff mem­bers in the briefing, “Har­nessing Com­plex Net­works to Solve the Nation’s Grand Chal­lenges.” The event was cospon­sored by Con­gressmen Joseph P. Kennedy III of Mass­a­chu­setts and Ran­dall Hult­gren of Illi­nois, bipar­tisan mem­bers of the Com­mittee on Sci­ence, Space, and Tech­nology. Vespig­nani was joined by experts from the Society for Indus­trial and Applied Math­e­matics as well as Northeastern’s David Lazer, an authority on social net­works and a pro­fessor in CCIS and the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties.

The briefing aligned with Northeastern’s ongoing com­mit­ment to working with pol­i­cy­makers to solve the nation’s biggest chal­lenges. In the spirit of the university’s focus on real-​​world engage­ment, Lazer and Vespig­nani high­lighted a range of its use-​​inspired research projects in net­work science.

North­eastern, which recently launched the nation’s first doc­toral pro­gram in net­work sci­ence, is at the fore­front of the field. Many of its fac­ulty mem­bers are con­ducting ground­breaking research. Albert-​​László Barabási, for example, the founding director of the university’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research, is working to build the human diseasome—a net­work of cel­lular and genetic inter­ac­tions that will help sci­en­tists better under­stand the causes of all kinds of ill­nesses and ailments.

Vespig­nani studies the spread of epi­demic con­ta­gions and has devel­oped a com­pu­ta­tional model that accu­rately pre­dicted the spread of the H1N1 virus. “We need to have a good under­standing of net­works in order to iden­tify path­ways along which dis­eases spread and develop knowl­edge to define new mech­a­nism to con­tain and mit­i­gate them,” he said.

In the after­math of the Boston Marathon bomb­ings, Lazer devel­oped an appli­ca­tion for Android phones to help better under­stand how people use social net­works during times of crisis. On Tuesday, he said, “Big data will change the way we look at the world in the next five years, causing a rever­ber­a­tion in the inter­con­nec­tivity of social and tech­no­log­ical systems.”

Kennedy echoed Lazer’s sen­ti­ments. “This country’s under­standing and use of these net­works is crit­i­cally impor­tant to our secu­rity inter­ests, eco­nomic future, and global lead­er­ship,” he said. “It is cru­cial that we give this field the sup­port it needs to expand and develop” in order to “ensure the United States has the cadre of trained sci­en­tists it needs to lead in the realm of ‘big data’ for gen­er­a­tions to come.”

Originally published in [email protected] on September 11, 2013

College of Science