Dean’s Blog: Society and Higher Education – The Times They are A’changing

As of September 18, 2019, it is my job to guide a fabulous team of individuals in developing a School of Data Science (SDS) here at the University of Virginia (UVA). This is a unique opportunity in a number of ways and we must grasp that opportunity and run with it. 

Data science is a new field and universities across the world are launching programs – an estimated 200 in the US alone. Few, if any, have made a commitment to do so at the level of a School. Schools, in the parlance of higher education, are usually reserved for all of medicine, the arts writ large, all fields of engineering and so on. For UVA, only 12 schools have been formed in 200 years. In short, forming a new school anywhere, let alone in an institution which Thomas Jefferson considered one of his major accomplishments, is a big deal. Why all the fuss?

The answer lies in the notion of data science itself; so we better start off with a definition. For our purposes here, data science is applying computational methods to large amounts of complex and diverse digital data. Data from every imaginable source from every discipline offering the opportunity to make discoveries that provide a benefit to society in a way that is ethical and protects human rights. Traditional disciplines, like statistics, will tell you this is nothing new. Perhaps, but it is at a scale without precedent.

This opportunity is like nothing that has gone before it in history and we have a responsibility to make the best of it.

By saying data science is something without precedent and special, it causes us to question  not only what we are doing currently, but how we do it. Across the world the costs of a higher education are on the rise and arguably the satisfaction levels of employers and students are on the decline. Teaching methods can be antiquated, students can be shoehorned into disciplinary silos at a time when solving of complex problems involves a broad base of interdisciplinary knowledge and too little emphasis is given to, at one extreme, the scholarly value of a piece of work, and at the other extreme, the idea of translating ideas into products that make a difference. We believe data science can act as a catalyst to change the educational status quo.

To this end, the School of Data Science (SDS) will operate differently – consider it an experiment in higher education at a time of societal upheaval. An experiment driven by a set of guiding principles that includes, excellence, integrity, diversity, openness and transparency, FAIRness, innovation, all for the social good. An experiment that causes us to use terms such as, “a school without walls” or “interdisciplinarity is our driving force.” Will it work? 

To attempt to answer this question, each month I will provide a perspective on what we are doing, why, and what outcomes we are achieving. It will be different from the descriptive material prepared by our excellent communications team. Rather it will be a personal view which I hope will spark a discourse, and being written for a non-expert, will invite comment on our changing data driven society by all who read it. I hope you will join our team and I on this journey.

2 thoughts on “Dean’s Blog: Society and Higher Education – The Times They are A’changing

  1. How disruptive will this be to preexisting schools? Will some departments be moved into the new school? Stats, Machine Learning, medical informatics, urban planning…? It’s great that data science is getting top visibility, but I wonder if we’re really ready to redefine it from an interdisciplinary field to a stand-alone discipline.

    1. Hi Spencer –

      I see two weighty questions here. First, will the advent of data science change existing disciplines, and second, will data science itself become a discipline? I do not know the answer to either question, but I am moved to remind us of one emergent field of collective activity driven by data which you know well – bioinformatics. For me data from the human genome initiative sparked the development of bioinformatics. Early on a lot of energy was spent by practitioners and non-practitioners of bioinformatics debating these same questions. The debate has still not been resolved in my mind. What has been resolved is the undeniable impact that bioinformatics has had on biomedicine. Perhaps not in the timeframe originally conceived, but profound nevertheless.

      I only hope this time around, where the scale is larger, encompassing much more that the life sciences, we spend more time doing it than trying to define what it is. So far the signs are good, including those actions from my fellow Deans, who could see data science as a threat, but rather have embraced it whether it be, or becomes, a discipline.


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About Phil Bourne

Stephenson Dean of the School of Data Science and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia