Science and Nature: Where’s the Computing Research?

September 12th, 2008 by Peter Lee Post a comment »

Today’s issue of Science Magazine has an article by Luis von Ahn, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and several of his colleagues. The article describes the principles and experience behind reCAPTCHA, the “human computation” system that enables web sites to stop spambots while simultaneously digitizing books.

As I mention on my personal blog (at, this points out a somewhat strange aspect of computing research, namely that there isn’t much computing research in the major core-science publications. I’m thinking specifically of Science magazine, Nature, and PNAS. In fact, I took a quick scan over the past 5 issues of Science and Nature.  Over those issues, in Science one sees 35 research articles and reports in the biology and medical science areas, 14 in chemistry/materials, 10 in earth and atmosphereic sciences, 5 in astronomy and astrophysics, and several in physics, psychology, and archeology. Only one article in computer science!

In Nature, the situation is even more stark. In the last 5 issues we see 11 research articles in biology, 2 in chemistry, 1 in astrophysics, and 1 in psychology. None in computer science.

Why should we care about this? Well, lately the computing research community has become very concerned about its “image”, particularly in the lay public (including, notably, the US Congress). Yes, we want people to know the full impact of computing, the range of jobs and activities the computing professionals are involved in, and the great economic benefits the come from our research. But we also need, in the interests of public education and our image, to explain computing research to the world’s science scholars. Doing so not only puts our research to a good test, but it also helps to cast an aura of intellectual respectability that would undoubtedly contribute positively to the image of the field.

There could be important consequences within the federal government, too. I asked Peter Harsha, the director of government affairs for the CRA, what he thought about this. Here is what he said:

I think all three [Science, Nature, PNAS] generate news in the more mainstream press that gets noticed by Members of Congress and Administration folks. So while most policymakers and their staff generally don’t read the periodicals directly, the noteworthy stuff they publish finds its way into the NY Times, WSJ, or Washington Post, which quickly gets policymaker attention.

I think all three publications have a good track record of generating that buzz in the mainstream press (Science and Nature, especially).

As we as a community work on getting our government to step up its support of basic science research, to what extent will our representatives include computer science and engineering? While computing will be hard to forget in any serious discussion about funding priorities, putting ourselves “front and center” in these sorts of publications should help not only the cause of computing research but also the large cause of scientific research.

Peter Lee

  • Arden Kaisman

    in this fast growing world science’s growth is on a panoramic scale, but in this growth we cant forget the importance of nature.because science and nature are complement of each other.

    Arden Kaisman