University Grants Could Aid Data Science Push in New York, Seattle

The New York Times turned its attention last weekend toward education of data scientists, highlighting a budding “rivalry” between New York City and Seattle.

The paper’s Education Life section focused on the relative merits of the two cities as big data hubs, and efforts to build curricula in this field at universities around the country. But what the coverage didn’t mention is that universities in New York and Seattle are also competing for a major grant aimed at broadening academic support for data-driven scientific discovery.

It’s funding that could give either city an advantage in the growing competition to attract and build companies and scientists harnessing the ever-expanding universe of digital data for profit and discovery.

In a few weeks, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation will announce partner universities for a five-year effort to “dramatically accelerate data-driven research.” The foundations plan to award grants totaling between $25 million and $40 million beginning later this year.

“The volume, variety, and velocity of data increasingly available to researchers is transforming science and opening new realms of scientific discovery,” the foundations said in a statement. “Such ‘data-driven’ research relies on individuals and teams that combine scientific expertise, computational knowledge, and statistical skills to solve problems creatively and unearth new discoveries.

“While researchers recognize the pressing need for these ‘data science’ skills, current academic incentives and career paths, designed for another era, are failing to produce practitioners in sufficient numbers, leaving institutions data rich but discovery poor.”

Late last year, the foundations invited 15 elite universities—including the University of Washington, Columbia University, New York University, and Cornell University—to apply to the program. The foundations aren’t disclosing the finalists. Selected universities would “incubate tools and platforms for scientific research, as well as cultivate the next generation of leaders in data-driven science,” the foundations say.

At the UW, this effort is centered on the eScience Institute. The goal “is to make UW a leader in inventing new approaches to data-driven discovery, and also in making these new approaches usable by researchers in a broad range of fields,” says UW computer science professor Ed Lazowska, who leads the eScience Institute.

The UW is competing in big data despite a run of horrendous cuts to state funding for higher education. As the Times points out—and Xconomy has covered previously—New York City’s tech industry and universities have found a big data benefactor in Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Columbia and NYU are getting tens of millions in city aid to build new programs in data science education.

“He came to a fantastic conclusion—and I wish others would do it—which is that lack of technical education capacity, particularly at the master’s level, was what was impeding startup growth in New York City,” Lazowska says. “…We have to get to that stage here, but we don’t have a Mayor Bloomberg to play Santa Claus.”

Seattle may not have a Bloomberg, but it does have a Bezos and a Gates. The UW touted in its pitch to the foundations the presence of Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and a host of up-and-coming big data companies, such as data visualization software maker Tableau Software, which is preparing to go public.

As the Times notes, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos was instrumental in recruiting to the UW Carlos Guestrin and Emily Fox, experts in machine learning, a key big data technology.

“These companies are just a huge asset to us,” Lazowska says.

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