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Columbia University’s Data Science Institute: A Conversation with a Funder and Grantee [Marc Kastner blog]

By Marc Kastner, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance

Fundraising for a growing center at an institution can be very satisfying, yet challenging, work. At a recent conference, Columbia University trustee and donor Armen A.A. Avanessians sat down with the University’s new director of the Data Science Institute, Jeannette Wing, for a conversation about philanthropy and the University’s data science program. Data science is an intellectual area that flourishes at Columbia, under renewed commitments to the field institutionally, and in particular as a result of the recent gift of Mr. Avanessians and his wife Janette.

Both Mr. Avanessians and Professor Wing emphasized data science as an emerging field rich with potential. “Every discipline has data, including what’s locked up in text in libraries, books, and papers,” Professor Wing said.

The question is: how does an institution raise money to support its growing data science research program?

Aligning the institution’s and the donor’s interests

Professor Wing said that it is critical to start with the interests of the potential donor. Every donor, after all, has different passions — one might love basic science while another is deeply invested in solving a particular societal problem such as curing cancer or addressing climate change. Institutions must tailor the conversation to the donor.

“As long as you can connect the dots, then I think the story’s quite compelling,” she said.

With Mr. Avanessians, Columbia University recognized that his interests aligned with Columbia’s mission to transform the way data is used in many fields. While domain-specific data science can be used to connect core scientific work with potential long-term solutions, researchers can also invent new algorithms and statistical techniques that serve multiple fields. These greater possibilities can lead to investments by philanthropists who want to fund tools to accelerate discovery.

As the global head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management’s quantitative, rules-based and indexing businesses, Mr. Avanessians has witnessed firsthand the importance of data science in quantitative investing.

“Data science, in the same way that it’s transformed the finance industry, I believe will transform all science industries,” he said. Professor Wing concurred with this, and added that data science has the potential to transform all fields, not just the sciences.

Why Columbia University?

In addition to persuading the donor that a field of research is worth the investment, institutions also need to articulate why that particular institution should be the recipient of the donor’s support.

Columbia made a compelling case for their institution as having built the components necessary for successful data science research. Not only does Columbia have a strong computer science department, but it also has a strong statistics department and a strong industrial engineering and operations research department — and all three communicate with each other. High-quality research in these areas supported the case that the Data Science Institute had built a robust foundation for excellence in the field.

In addition, as a Columbia University trustee, Mr. Avanessians was already engaged with the university, but he was seeking a deeper relationship with the institution.

“Giving money is an easy thing,” he said, “but giving your time and energy to assess how you can help the institution with your money makes an investment even more compelling.”

With a compelling case presented to them, Janette and Armen Avanessians contributed a transformative gift, enabling the University to recruit Jeannette Wing from Microsoft Research, where she was a corporate vice president, to lead the Data Science Institute. The Avanessians’ support of the Institute came about because of a strong relationship, an alignment of interests, and clear articulation of why Columbia was the right place for their support of data science.