Microsoft Adds NYC Research Site Targeting Social Science Questions

5/3/12Follow @xconomy

Microsoft Research announced today that it’s adding a 13th site to its fold, with the creation of Microsoft Research New York City. Jennifer Chayes, managing director of Cambridge, MA-based Microsoft Research New England, will lead both campuses, which will function as “sister labs,” she says. A month or so into baseball season, it’s a bit shocking to see Boston and New York collaborating in any capacity, but the story of the New York City research site calls a different type of competition to light: the one for hot researching talent.

David Pennock, Duncan Watts, and John Langford, the three founding scientists of Microsoft Research New York City, were formerly researchers at Yahoo, which last month announced it was eliminating 2,000 jobs across different departments. Microsoft expects to have 15 scientists on board for the New York lab, with eight confirmed as of now. It’s still looking for permanent digs for the site, so for now the researchers are working out of a Microsoft sales office at 1290 Avenue of the Americas.

When Chayes “heard that they’re might be some problems at Yahoo,” she reached out to Pennock, who interned at Microsoft Research while in grad school, with an e-mail asking if he was OK, she said in a phone interview this morning.

“I’m always trying to get great people to move,” says Chayes (an Xconomist), noting that word travels fast in the small research community and that she often contacts researchers when hearing of personnel shifts. “It’s both personal concern and being a but opportunistic. We have a list of people we’d love to hire. Dave was on that list for years and years. Once you get on our list it’s a little hard to get off it.”

The New England team of researchers have been tackling questions in the areas of social media, empirical economics, and machine learning, Chayes says. “As we looked at where there were holes in the disciplines in our lab, we realized that we really wanted to try to find leaders in other kinds of social science research,” she says. “When we realized that we might be able to bring on these phenomenal people we met in the New York City area, we realized it could take our research to the next area.”

Specifically, that area is the intersection of computer science and social science. “Social science has historically been very heavy on theories and very light on data—that balance is beginning to shift,” said Watts in a phone call this morning. Scientists can now observe the interactions of large groups of people through things like e-mail, SMS messaging, and Skype, to understand how people interact in situations like revolutions, financial crises, and the shifting of cultural norms, he says.

“It raises fundamental new challenges for science, but simply understanding the question is not enough,” Watts says. “You need to have the skills and the techniques to handle large quantities of data. The technical chops really come from the computer science field, the theoretical and historical perspective comes from the social sciences. Neither side can do it on its own. There’s an emerging intersection of the two.”

The New York City research lab will have a big focus on partnering with nearby universities like Columbia, NYU, Rutgers, and Princeton, as well as Cornell’s New York City Technion campus, much the same way Microsoft’s New England research site works with Boston-area schools such as Harvard, MIT, Boston University, and Northeastern.

“That’s really a hallmark of Microsoft Research—that we interact very deeply with students and faculty at nearby institutions,” Chayes says. You can read more on the new announcement in her blog post here.

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