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Network scientists lead congressional briefing

Network science has the potential to solve major national challenges in health, security, and sustainability, said two Northeastern University professors in a briefing on Tuesday afternoon in Washington, D.C. The field, they said, is poised to confront key societal problems ranging from smoking and obesity to terrorism and deadly pandemics.

“We live in an increasingly interconnected world in which all of our systems are interdependent,” said Alessandro Vespignani, a world-renowned statistical physicist and the Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor who holds joint appointments in the College of Science, College of Computer and Information Science, and Bouvé College of Health Sciences. “Without a deep understanding of how complex networks work,” he said, “it would be difficult to take a holistic approach to solving these issues.”

Vespignani addressed more than 60 congressional and federal agency staff members in the briefing, “Harnessing Complex Networks to Solve the Nation’s Grand Challenges.” The event was cosponsored by Congressmen Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts and Randall Hultgren of Illinois, bipartisan members of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Vespignani was joined by experts from the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics as well as Northeastern’s David Lazer, an authority on social networks and a professor in CCIS and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

The briefing aligned with Northeastern’s ongoing commitment to working with policymakers to solve the nation’s biggest challenges. In the spirit of the university’s focus on real-world engagement, Lazer and Vespignani highlighted a range of its use-inspired research projects in network science.

Massachusetts congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III delivered the opening remarks.

Massachusetts congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III delivered the opening remarks.

Northeastern, which recently launched the nation’s first doctoral program in network science, is at the forefront of the field. Many of its faculty members are conducting groundbreaking research. Albert-László Barabási, for example, the founding director of the university’s Center for Complex Network Research, is working to build the human diseasome—a network of cellular and genetic interactions that will help scientists better understand the causes of all kinds of illnesses and ailments.

Vespignani studies the spread of epidemic contagions and has developed a computational model that accurately predicted the spread of the H1N1 virus. “We need to have a good understanding of networks in order to identify pathways along which diseases spread and develop knowledge to define new mechanism to contain and mitigate them,” he said.

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, Lazer developed an application for Android phones to help better understand how people use social networks during times of crisis. On Tuesday, he said, “Big data will change the way we look at the world in the next five years, causing a reverberation in the interconnectivity of social and technological systems.”

Kennedy echoed Lazer’s sentiments. “This country’s understanding and use of these networks is critically important to our security interests, economic future, and global leadership,” he said. “It is crucial that we give this field the support it needs to expand and develop” in order to “ensure the United States has the cadre of trained scientists it needs to lead in the realm of ‘big data’ for generations to come.”