Follow the data

Pablo Debenedetti

Pablo Debenedetti. Dean for Research, Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Photo by David Kelly Crow

If there is a theme to this year’s Discovery: Research at Princeton, it is the ascendancy of data science in aiding our quest for deeper understanding. We now have the computing power and resources to collect, combine and query data in ways not before possible, and this power is growing daily. And with this capability comes the potential to accelerate the pace of discovery and push the limits of knowledge to benefit humanity.

New discoveries also have the potential to contradict what we thought we knew. Research can push us into contentious territory and threaten our deeply held convictions. New ideas should not be rejected just because they challenge existing paradigms. Rather, every new theory, and even many old ones, must be tested against hard facts and data, and through the open exchange of ideas.

When the interpretation of data is influenced by political motives, the results are often detrimental. An example comes from the former Soviet Union, when Stalin endorsed the theories of agronomist and biologist Trofim Lysenko, who rejected Mendelian genetics. Lysenko believed that the right environmental cues by themselves sufficed to train plants to grow at different times of the year, and that such “vernalized” plants would produce offspring that would inherit their growth habits. With Stalin’s backing, Lysenko deployed these ideas on a massive scale, setting back Soviet genetics research by decades.

Whatever the controversy of the day, the way forward in science relies on following the evidence, wherever it may lead. Princeton researchers are at the forefront of this path, both through theoretical advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and through innovations in data science that are helping to address societal challenges, such as eviction and its impacts, energy-efficient transportation, marine “dead zones,” attitudes on immigration, and many more.

The search for understanding is at the heart of University research, whether the quest leads to beautiful theorems, practical inventions or a new interpretation of art (page 26). Princeton is a place where all of these aspects of research coexist, cross-fertilize and intermingle. But why take my word for it? Let the pages of Discovery be the data that convince you.

Pablo Debenedetti
Dean for Research, Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

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