Scott Page and John Miller

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of SFI’s Graduate Workshop in Computational Social Science and Complexity. The annual two-week workshop, held this year June 16-28, brings together a group of advanced graduate students and a small faculty for an intensive two-week experience. 

To learn what makes this annual event so special — and how it has evolved over a quarter century and more than 275 participants — we sat down with co-directors and founders John Miller and Scott Page. Both are SFI External Professors, and Miller also chairs SFI’s Science Steering Committee.

Q: How did this annual event start?

A: We were very young! In 1994, we took the idea that science advances funeral by funeral to heart, and we decided the best way to enhance the emerging field of computational social science and complexity was to create a workshop for the rising generation of new scientists. Thankfully, SFI has always had a long-term perspective on creating new science, so starting a workshop for graduate students was welcomed, even though it might take a decade or more to see the results.

Q: What’s the secret to this workshop’s longevity?  What makes it stand out?  

A: The program has always focused on graduate students who have completed their coursework but haven’t yet started their dissertations. This allows us to leverage the students’ previous training and focus on getting the new ideas we explore incorporated into their dissertations. Dissertations eventually lead to research papers and scientific talks, often setting the path for future careers — and even new students.

We have always started the workshop with a very open-ended homework problem to be completed by the next day with a randomly assigned teammate. These problems have ranged from modeling a standing ovation to a bike race. Each year we draw on SFI resident faculty and fellows to give talks and introduce the students to the SFI way of doing science. And the last half of the workshop is devoted to individual projects that are presented at a conference on the last day.

Q: After all these years, what keeps you excited about this workshop?

A: Every year in Santa Fe, albeit only for two weeks, we assemble the best department in the world in computational social science and complexity.  The students are amazing and, for most of them, it’s the first time they’re surrounded by other colleagues who, regardless of their field (and there are a wide variety), have similar interests in complex systems. A wonderful and collaborative research culture quickly develops among the participants.

Q: What has surprised you the most?

A: We often find ourselves visiting former students in their faculty offices and see their “awards” from the workshop taped to their office walls. That’s so cool. We feel as though SFI reminded them that science should be fun!