Garland and Price (Photo: Katherine Mast)

Since its inception, the Santa Fe Institute has operated well beyond the confines of traditional boundaries. SFI’s meetings, educational programs, and long-term projects eschew the typical disciplinary silos prevalent at many universities and research centers. Now, through the new Applied Complexity Postdoctoral Fellowship, which launched September 1, SFI is bridging another divide — the gap between academia and industry.

This fellowship offers early career researchers the opportunity to work closely with SFI faculty and with decision-makers in industry and government, and to use insights from complexity science to address specific challenges and questions raised by industry sponsors. “This fellowship is a first-of-its-kind at a theoretical research institution,” says Will Tracy, SFI’s Vice President for Applied Complexity. “We had more than 100 applicants, which illustrates the staggering drawing power of the Institute, but also the interest in the under-explored interstitial space between theory and application.”

While the program helps industry apply SFI science, it is also designed to further the science itself. “We’ve found existing research with strong faculty support which we believe will be enhanced by these collaborations,” says Tracy. “It’s a two-way street, and the fellows are a conduit between the research at SFI and industry partners.”

Joshua Garland and Michael Price, the inaugural Applied Complexity Fellows, are familiar faces at SFI; they join the new fellowship from their positions as Omidyar and ASU-SFI postdoctoral fellows, respectively. Over the next two years, they will be helping to hone and design the future of the program while working on two specific projects.

Garland, who holds degrees in mathematics and computer science, will work closely with SFI Professor Mirta Galesic on a project aimed at tackling online hate by researching counterspeech. Garland anticipates that by partnering with social media companies and gaining deeper insight into the algorithms behind the platforms, he will be able to apply the latest advancements in social science, machine learning, and natural language processing to develop tools that empower citizens to counter cyberhate and make entire networks simply less conducive to hate.

“This fellowship offers an opportunity to make an actual impact,” says Garland. “Paper after paper [about radicalization and hate speech online] is coming out and landing in the arXiv. Now I’ll get a chance to put this research into effect and create positive change.”

Price, with a background in physics and anthropology, will work primarily with SFI Professors Geoffrey West and Chris Kempes to expand the applications of scaling theory. Originally, scaling theory revealed patterns in mammals, and more recently, has helped illustrate tradeoffs among organisms of different sizes, and to determine the ultimate limits for certain organismal types. And now, researchers are exploring how scaling theory applies to human organizations including cities, firms, and universities. Price hopes to develop a deviation index to identify when, and understand why, an organization is under- or over-performing relative to its size. Already, research from complex systems has offered transformational insights to specific industries. Price notes that two areas of research — the thermodynamics of computation and scaling theory applied to human systems — have recently offered new insights with the potential to revolutionize existing industries or create new ones, and to make sense of human dynamics within companies. Through his Applied Complexity Fellowship, Price says, “I hope to add new and surprising ideas to these two examples.”

In addition to their main projects and laying the groundwork for the future of the fellowship, Price and Garland will also be collaborating with one another. “We have a goal of spending time on the other person’s project,” says Price. “There’s a lot of interaction in this fellowship, which gives it a lot of richness.”

This won’t be the first time for either Garland or Price to work on translating complex systems science for non-specialist audiences and in industry settings. Between completing his undergraduate degree and beginning his Ph.D., Price worked as a systems engineer at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems. Garland has used his mathematics background to consult for financial firms and social media companies.

“Translating science to industry is often very challenging,” says Garland, noting that what a company wants may be in conflict with what his mathematical analyses suggest is possible. But good lines of communication between research and industry create the potential for powerful collaboration. “There are plenty of ideas in academia that have the potential to make a big impact in industry, and vice versa. By positioning fellows amongst the leading minds in these two groups, we will be able to leverage the fantastic ideas on both sides to derive meaningful solutions to today’s most challenging problems,” he says.

This fellowship also comes at an interesting time when research, particularly in certain fields, is moving out of the halls of academia and into industry. “If you want to do interesting research, especially in data science, you have to toe the line between the two,” says Garland.

The products of this fellowship will also be different from other postdoctoral fellowships. In addition to papers as the tangible outcome of research, the Applied Complexity Fellows will build models, conduct analyses, and develop new vehicles to bring their science to application. “We’ll still be doing fundamental research, but, with the scaling project, a lot of the questions we’re going after will be for people in academics and government,” says Price. “While we understand the empirical patterns, we don’t understand the mechanisms for organizational scaling the way we do in biology.”

Garland, Price, and Tracy describe the new fellowship as a true win-win for both academia and industry. Sponsorship from industry partners will provide new revenue streams for the Institute, while these partnerships offer faculty and fellows new opportunities to develop solutions for big, sometimes seemingly intractable, problems. “There is a growing belief at SFI that there is a very interesting space between pure theory and application,” says Tracy. “This fellowship emerged as a way of both exploring that space and adding resources to the Institute.”

In addition to sponsorship from industry leaders, the Applied Complexity Fellowship is generously supported by a gift from longtime supporter Bill Miller, SFI Life Trustee and Chairman Emeritus.