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.

And the construction keeps on rolling

Krasnow is of course in the process of growing. Here’s the picture from late last week on the new wing. We’ll add a bunch of new labs and offices, which of course will allow us to expand our research and teaching. When we take delivery, the Institute’s footprint will reach an impressive 60,000 square feet. And we’ll still have satellite operations across the Mason campus which we’ll hope to bring under one roof with a Phase III project on the other end of the facility–sometime in 2014.

Summer Short Courses

Next summer (2011) we have some major academic plans on the table. We’re going to be offering summer short courses at the Fairfax Campus of George Mason. The topics are still in flux, but they will bring top-flight faculty from around the world to Mason’s brand new Hotel and Conference Center, the Mason Inn. Generally we’ll be teaching week long short courses in our areas of expertise: social complexity, neuroethics and policy, and possibly agent based modeling. The courses will leverage the newly expanded Institute Facility (by next summer we’ll be around 60,000 square feet) and the University’s close proximity to the Nation’s capital. Stay tuned!

Krasnow growth

As we gathered for the annual holiday party and group photo earlier this week, I was struck by how much the Institute has grown over the past decade–there are so many Institute scientists, students and staff now, one faculty member pointed out that it’s no longer possible to even recognize everyone. That growth has manifested not only in people, but also in a host of other ways ranging from space, shared instrumentation, grants and published peer-review reports. Not to mention programs: it’s a true pleasure to interact with doctoral students from two programs–social complexity and neuroscience–as I walk around the Institute’s spaces.

Yes this growth brings with it real challenges. How do we manage the increased administrative work-load with an already over-worked staff? If budget permits, of course, we add folks, but those new individuals must be trained and that takes time–time that is already in short supply. At the same time, we are faced with the challenges of providing the shared instrumentation that is absolutely crucial to asking the scientific questions relevant to “mind sciences”. Finally, there is the critical task of building upon the critical mass of institute faculty with new faculty lines and (this is crucial) adequately resourcing those lines to be both market competitive and scientifically viable.

All of this brings me to the real challenge: developing an endowment for the Institute’s core activities (as distinct from those supported by research grants). An endowment which can supplement the state funds which we are generously provided by Mason and ultimately the Virginia tax-payer. To build that endowment will require a combination of support from individuals and foundations at least an order of magnitude beyond what we have been able to achieve since Mr. Krasnow’s founding bequest in 1990.

Building that endowment will require a compelling narrative. Part of the purpose of this blog has been to help me frame that narrative (over time) and I have found the comments from loyal readers to be of great usefulness in that process. Certainly our centrality within the new “Decade of the Mind” project should telegraph something about that nascent “elevator speech”. Stay tuned.

Jim