Krasnow Institute Strategic Planning…

The Institute is actively preparing a strategic plan as part of an overall planning effort by George Mason University. This is a very useful exercise for us because it allows us to prioritize where we are going to invest over the long term, keeping in mind a vision for what we want to become over that same long term.

It’s very different from the day-to-day activities of research and education–while the two are both activities that, be definition, reach into the long term, they are, in term of action, very much of the here-and-now variety.

Recently the Institute’s advisory board completed its own work on preparing a vision for Krasnow’s future. We’ll post it on-line on the Institute’s web site in the near future. That vision will serve as a starting point for our strategic plan. At the same time, I’ve been meeting with faculty, students and staff to get their ideas about a roadmap for the Institute’s future.

Finally, the Institute’s plan will show alignment with the University’s own long term goals which you can read about here.

But a plan doesn’t mean anything unless it drives action–and that will be the most important aspect of putting this all together. Our plan has to lead to a set of coherent actions (think resource allocation, investments, prioritization) that move the Institute in the right direction. If it does that, then the planning activity will be well worth our efforts.

An institute for advanced study: what purpose?

In the short time before the Spring semester commences, it’s perhaps worthwhile to step back and consider  the question of: why an institute for advanced study?

There are quite a few such institutes these days, and not just here in the States, but the granddaddy of them all is the one at Princeton, where Albert Einstein spent the War years in the 1940’s. That Institute has as its key mission “to encourage and support fundamental research in the sciences and humanities – the original, often speculative, thinking that produces advances in knowledge that change the way we understand the world.”

Note the idea of producing advances that “change the way we understand the world”.  That idea of course echos Thomas Kuhn’s notion of a paradigm shift. Not all research does this; most findings are incremental in nature. To aim for paradigm shifts is bold and fraught with risk.

Which brings to mind this commentary on venture capitalists, which appeared on my twitter feed today. Here the operative meme is that VC’s are too cautious these days. That like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, they should take bigger risks:

VC firms must behave more like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which funds radical scientific innovations over long periods of time – and less like the National Institutes of Health, which prefers incremental, almost-sure advances.

 I would argue that it is in institutes for advanced studies that such science takes place, often with great collective purpose and across seemingly vastly different domains of knowledge. It is certainly what we are about at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.

I’ll close with this quote, lifted from our web site, that captures Krasnow nicely:

In the end, we believe that there is no substitute for recruiting the very best people and turning them loose to explore the fascinating world of thought somehow emergent from our biological nature and evolution as Homo sapiens.

Art at the Krasnow Institute

One of the really nice things about the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study is the art. Somehow there seems to be an important connection between science and art, probably because both involve human creativity and expression. These two pieces are by the Bulgarian-born artist, Stephen Sacklarian.

Not enough is really known about the neuroscience of artistic expression although with the advent of fMRI, the area is definitely opening up.

Annual Holiday Party

Today the Institute will take time off from science and education for a bit to celebrate. In rare Washington synchrony, we had our first dusting of snow this morning–just enough to accent the trees, not enough to cause chaos on the roads. It’s been a fine semester, although there are significant budget uncertainties ahead with Recovery Act (ARRA) funding going away next fiscal year. I’m exceptionally proud of our students, our faculty and our fine staff. It’s a pleasure to work with them.