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Program Seeks to Nurture ‘Data Science Culture’ at Universities.

Big Data has applications in sentiment analysis, including how feelings are expressed online. Seen here, 10,000 feelings are visualized as color particles, with good ones being represented brighter.

The modern flood of data comes in a many forms — sensor data, genomic data, web click streams and credit card transactions, to name a few. The disparate data sources are often called “silos,” suggesting the challenge of mingling different data sets to generate insights.

But if the data is in a silo, so are the people, often isolated in their fields of expertise. In universities, that problem is a key obstacle to progress in data science, according to academic research scientists.

And that problem, among others, is the focus of a new five-year project, involving three universities and supported by $37.8 million in funding from the Moore Foundation and the Sloan Foundation. The three universities in the partnership are New York University, the University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley. The program is being announced today in Washington at an event organized by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to highlight initiatives being taken by government, industry and academia to advance data-driven scientific discovery and technological progress.

Yet the program comes at a time when universities across the country — on their own — are opening up data science centers and institutes. These academic start-ups typically marry professors and graduate students from computer science, statistics and applied mathematics with those from other departments including biology, medicine, economics and even journalism.

So what is the need for the foundation-backed program? Most of the university data-science programs, the foundation sponsors say, are focused on projects and adapting data-analysis techniques to specific disciplines. “What this partnership is trying to do is change the culture of universities to create a data science culture,” said Joshua Greenberg, director of the Sloan Foundation’s Digital Information Technology program.

Yann LeCun, a computer scientist, is the director of New York University’s new Center for Data Science. But he sees the three-university collaboration as a program with a different agenda. “This is not so much to do science, but to organize yourself to create a new discipline, an environment, a data science environment,” Professor LeCun said.

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