Like most universities, U of T had a hiring freeze for new faculty for the last few years, as we struggled with budget cuts. Now, we’re starting to look at hiring again, to replace faculty we lost over that time, and to meet the needs of rapidly growing student enrolments. Our department (Computer Science) is just beginning the process of deciding what new faculty positions we wish to argue for, for next year. This means we get to engage in a fascinating process of exploring what we expect to be the future of our field, and where there are opportunities to build exciting new research and education programs. To get a new faculty position, our department has to make a compelling case to the Dean, and the Dean has to balance our request with those from 28 other departments and 46 interdisciplinary groups. So the pitch has to be good.

So here’s my draft pitch:

(1) Create a joint faculty position between the Department of Computer Science and the new School of Environment.

Last summer U of T’s Centre for Environment was relaunched as a School of Environment, housed wholly within the Faculty of Arts and Science. As a school, it can now make up to 49% faculty appointments. [The idea is that to do interdisciplinary research, you need a base in a home department/discipline, where your tenure and promotion will be evaluated, but would spend half your time engaged in inter-disciplinary research and teaching at the School. Hence, a joint position for us would be 51% CS and 49% in the School of Environment.]

A strong relationship between Computer Science and the School of Environment makes sense for a number of reasons. Most environmental science research makes extensive use of computational modelling as a core research tool, and the environmental sciences are one of the greatest producers of big data. As an example, the Earth System Grid currently stores more than 3 petabytes of data from climate models, and this is expected to grow to the point where by the end of the decade a single experiment with a climate model would generate an exabyte of data. This creates a number of exciting opportunities for application of CS tools and algorithms, in a domain that will challenge our capabilities. At the same time, this research is increasingly important to society, as we seek to find ways to feed 9 billion people, protect vital ecosystems, and develop strategies to combat climate change.

There are a number of directions we could go with such a collaboration. My suggestion is to pick one of:

  • Climate informatics. A small but growing community is applying machine learning and data mining techniques to climate datasets. Two international workshops have been held in the last two years, and the field has had a number of successes in knowledge discovery that have established its importance to climate science. For a taste of what the field covers, see the agenda of the last CI Workshop.
  • Computational Sustainability. Focuses on the decision-support needed for resource allocation to develop sustainable solutions in large-scale complex adaptive systems. This could be viewed as a field of applied artificial intelligence, but to do it properly requires strong interdisciplinary links with ecologists, economists, statisticians, and policy makers. This growing community has run run an annual conference, CompSust, since 2009, as well as tracks at major AI conferences for the last few years.
  • Green Computing. Focuses on the large environmental footprint of computing technology, and how to reduce it. Energy efficient computing is a central concern, although I believe an even more interesting approach is when we take a systems approach to understand how and why we consume energy (whether in IT equipment directly, or in devices that IT can monitor and optimize). Again, a series of workshops in the last few years has brought together an active research community (see for example, Greens’2013),

(2) Hire more software engineering professors!

Our software engineering group is now half the size it was a decade ago, as several of our colleagues retired. Here’s where we used to be, but that list of topics and faculty is now hopelessly out of date. A decade ago we had five faculty and plans to grow this to eight by now. Instead, because of the hiring freeze and the retirements, we’re down to three.┬áThere were a number of reasons we expected to grow the group, not least because for many years, software engineering was our most popular undergraduate specialist program and we had difficulty covering all the teaching, and also because the SE group had proved to be very successful in bringing in research funding, research prizes, and supervising large numbers of grad students.

Where do we go from here? Deans generally ignore arguments that we should just hire more faculty to replace losses, largely because when faculty retire or leave, that’s the only point at which a university can re-think its priorities. Furthermore, some of our arguments for a bigger software engineering group at U of T went away. Our department withdrew the specialist degree in software engineering, and reduced the number of SE undergrad courses, largely because we didn’t have the faculty to teach them, and finding qualified sessional instructors was always a struggle. In effect, our department has gradually walked away from having a strong software engineering group, due to resource constraints.

I believe very firmly that our department *does* need a strong software engineering group, for a number of reasons. First, it’s an important part of an undergrad CS education. The majority of our students go on to work in the software industry, and for this, it is vital that they have a thorough understanding of the engineering principles of software construction. Many of our competitors in N America run majors and/or specialist programs in software engineering, to feed the enormous demand from the software industry for more graduates. One could argue that this should be left to the engineering schools, but these schools tend to lack sufficient expertise in discrete math and computing theory. I believe that software engineering is rooted intellectually in computer science and that a strong software engineering program needs the participation (and probably the leadership) of a strong computer science department. This argument suggests we should be re-building the strength in software engineering that we used to have in our undergrad program, rather than quietly letting it whither.

Secondly, the complexity of modern software systems makes software engineering research ever more relevant to society. Our ability to invent new software technology continues to outpace our ability to understand the principles by which that software can be made safe and reliable. Software companies regularly come to us seeking to partner with us in joint research and to engage with our grad students. Currently, we have to walk away from most of these opportunities. That means research funding we’re missing out on.

1 Comment

  1. I hear that there are a bunch of computer scientists hired in ECE departments at some universities. It makes a lot of sense to me to have strong links between ECE and CS, or even an EECS department, to build strength in software engineering. But it’s also true, I think, that there aren’t that many software engineering faculty in Canada in general.

    (By the way, we also feel that we don’t have enough software expertise in ECE at Waterloo, but at the department level, that doesn’t necessarily mean SE as a research discipline. It means something more like “computer scientist”. Maybe it’s one of those things where you can never have enough.)

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