Harvard Launches Data Science Initiative

​Francesca Dominici and David Parkes named as co-directors

Francesca Dominici and David Parkes will co-lead the data science initiative. (Photo courtesy of Kris Snibbe/Harvard University)

Cambridge, MA (March 28, 2017)—A statistician and a computer scientist have been named co-leaders of Harvard’s new Data Science Initiative, the Harvard University Office of the Vice Provost for Research announced today. A University-wide program that will facilitate cross-disciplinary collaboration, the initiative will be co-led by Francesca Dominici, Professor of Biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and David C. Parkes, George F. Colony Professor and Area Dean for Computer Science at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“With its diversity of disciplines, Harvard has access to large data sets that record a staggering array of phenomena,” said Provost Alan Garber. “Researchers in our schools of medicine, public health, business, law, arts and sciences, government, education, and engineering, are already gaining deep insights from their analyses of large data sets. This initiative will connect research efforts across the University in this emerging field. It will facilitate cross-fertilization in both teaching and research, paving the way to methodological innovations and to applications of these new tools to a wide range of societal and scientific challenges.”

As massive amounts of data are generated from science, engineering, social sciences, and medicine—and even from our digitally augmented lives—researchers are grappling with how to make sense of all this information, and how to use it to benefit humankind. Data science applies the theory and practice of statistics and computer science to extract useful knowledge from complex and often messy information sources. Applications span healthcare, environment, commerce, government services, urban planning, and finance. The Initiative will make it possible to take methodology and tools from one domain to another and discover new applications.

Until now, Harvard’s growth in data science has been organic, occurring in distinct domains and an increasing array of applications. The Harvard Data Science Initiative will unite efforts across the university, foster collaboration in both research and teaching, and catalyze research in many fields. A steering committee led the planning efforts that involved 55 faculty members and many of Harvard’s data-science leaders.

The Data Science Initiative will strengthen the fabric of connections among departments to create an integrated data science community

The Initiative has already launched the Harvard Data Science Postdoctoral Fellowship program, which will support up to seven scholars over two years, whose interests are in data science, broadly construed, and include researchers with both a methodological and applications focus.

The first cohort of Fellows will arrive in Fall 2017, and will direct their own research while forging collaborations around the university. The Fellows program will offer numerous opportunities to engage with the broader data science community, including through seminar series, informal lunches, mentoring, and opportunities for fellow-led programming and other networking events.  The Initiative has also launched the Harvard Data Science Initiative Competitive Research Fund. This call invites innovative ideas whose interests span all areas of data science, including methodological foundations, as well as the development of quantitative methods and tools motivated by application challenges.

Three new master’s degree programs have also been approved as data science rapidly develops in several key academic areas on campus: Master of Biomedical Informatics (Harvard Medical School) and a Master of Science in Health Data Science (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). A master’s in Data Science (Faculty of Arts and Sciences) and jointly offered by Computer Science and Statistics has been approved by the FAS faculty and is planned for Fall 2018.

“The ability to apply the power of new analytics and new methodologies in revolutionary ways makes this the era of data science and Harvard faculty have been at the forefront of this emerging field,” said Vice Provost for Research Rick McCullough. “Our researchers not only develop new methodologies, but also apply those methodologies to incredible effect. I am delighted that Francesca Dominici and David Parkes will be co-directing this new effort. They are both extraordinary scientists, and exemplary colleagues.” 

Dominici specializes in the development of statistical methods to analyze large and complex data sets. She leads multiple interdisciplinary groups of scientists addressing questions in environmental health science, climate change, and health policy. 

“Harvard’s Data Science Initiative will build on the collaborations that already exist across the University to foster a rich and cohesive data science community that brings together scholars from across disciplines and schools,” Dominici said. “I am delighted to be a part of an effort that pushes the frontiers of this important discipline and extends our ability to use data science for the good of people everywhere.”

Parkes leads research at the interface between economics and computer science, with a focus on multi-agent systems, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“The Data Science Initiative will strengthen the fabric of connections among departments to create an integrated data science community,” Parkes said. “Through these efforts, we seek to empower research progress and education across the University, and work towards solutions for the world’s most important challenges. I look forward to being a part of this exciting work.”

Data Science Steering Committee, in addition to Dominici and Parkes, includes:

  • Alyssa Goodman, Professor of Applied Astronomy, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • Gary King, Director, Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science
  • Zac Kohnane, Chair of Department of Biomedical Informatics, Harvard Medical School
  • Xihong Lin, Chair of Department of Biostatistics, Harvard Chan School of Public Health
  • Anne Margulies, Harvard University Chief Information Office
  • Hanspeter Pfister, Professor of Computer Science, Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
  • Neil Shephard, Chair of Department of Economics and of Statistics, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

For more information about the Harvard Data Science Initiative, visit

Topics: Computer Science

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John A. Paulson Dean of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

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