Knowing the Vote

The pollsters are back.

With the 2016 presidential race fully underway, candidates are crisscrossing the country to take their case to the American public. Just where they stump, however, is increasingly determined by armies of statisticians, continually checking the pulse of the electorate. And this time, many of them are building upon methods introduced by Caltech alumna Erin Hartman (BS '07) back in 2012.

During the last presidential election cycle, Hartman served as an analyst on Obama's campaign, where she was tasked with studying data from its massive polling operation, which was conducting more than 30,000 telephone interviews per week. Hartman's team needed to quickly sift that data to predict which voters would turn out, how they would vote, and who was capable of being persuaded. Their analysis was then used to deploy armies of volunteers.

Hartman soon realized that the models could be more accurate. "I was completely new to the process. So I didn't have any preconceptions about how things should be done," she said. Hartman credits her broad-based analytical training at Caltech, which set her apart from other operatives with more traditional political campaign experience, for allowing her to spot an opportunity.

 "Erin was an outstanding student who perhaps fell into social science," said Michael Alvarez, professor of political science at Caltech. "She accomplished important work in the political sphere and shows the same rigor and inventiveness as a social scientist."

Read the full story about Hartman and her polling methods on the Caltech Alumni Association website.

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Experimental Economics: Results You Can Trust

Reproducibility is an important measure of validity in all fields of experimental science. If researcher A publishes a particular scientific result from his laboratory, researcher B should be able to follow the same protocol and achieve the same result in her laboratory. However, in recent years many results in a variety of disciplines have been questioned for their lack of reproducibility. A new study suggests that published results from experimental economics—a field pioneered at Caltech—are better than average when it comes to reproducibility.

The work was published in the March 3 online issue of the journal Science.

"Trying to reproduce previous results is not glamorous or creative, so it is rarely done. But being able to get the same result over and over is part of the definition of what makes knowledge scientific," says Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at Caltech and lead author on the paper.

The study was based on a previous method used to assess the replication of psychology experiments. In the earlier technique, called the reproducibility project psychology (RPP), researchers replicated 100 original studies published in three of the top journals in psychology—and found that although 97 percent of the original studies reported so-called "positive findings" (meaning a significant change compared to control conditions), such positive findings were reliably reproduced only 36 percent of the time.

Using this same technique, Camerer and his colleagues reproduced 18 laboratory experimental papers published in two top-tier economics journals between 2011 and 2014. Eleven of the 18—roughly 61 percent—showed a "significant effect in the same direction as in the original study." The researchers also found that the sample size and p-values—a standard measure of statistical confidence—of the original studies were good predictors for the success of replication, meaning they could serve as good indicators for the reliability of results in future experiments.

"Replicability has become a major issue in many sciences over the past few years, with often low replication rates," says paper coauthor Juergen Huber of the University of Innsbruck. "The rate we report for experimental economics is the highest we are aware of for any field."

The authors suggest that there are some methodological research practices in laboratory experimental economics that contribute to the good replication success. "It seems that the culture established in experimental economics—incentivizing subjects, publication of the experimental procedure and instructions, no deception—ensures reliable results. This is very encouraging given that it is a very young discipline," says Michael Kirchler, another coauthor and collaborator from the University of Innsbruck.

"As a journal editor myself, we are always curious whether experimental results will replicate across populations and cultures, and these results from multiple countries are really reassuring," says coauthor Teck-Hua Ho from the National University of Singapore.

Coauthor Magnus Johannesson from the Stockholm School of Economics adds, "It is extremely important to investigate to what extent we can trust published scientific findings and to implement institutions that promote scientific reproducibility."

"For the past half century, Caltech has been a leader in the development of social science experimental methods. It is no surprise that Caltech scholars are part of a group that use replication studies to demonstrate the validity of these methods," says Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and chair of the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Caltech.

The work was published in a paper titled, "Evaluating Replicability of Laboratory Experiments in Economics." Other coauthors are: Taisuke Imai and Gideon Nave from Caltech; Johan Almenberg from Sveriges Riksbank in Stockholm; Anna Dreber, Eskil Forsell, Adam Altmejd, Emma Heikensten, and Siri Isaksson from the Stockholm School of Economics; Taizan Chan and Hang Wu from the National University of Singapore; Felix Holzmeister and Michael Razen from the University of Innsbruck; and Thomas Pfeiffer from the New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study.

The study was funded by the Austrian Science Fund, the Austrian National Bank, the Behavioral and Neuroeconomics Discovery Fund, the Jan Wallander and Tom Hedelius Foundation, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Swedish Foundation For Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Sloan Foundation.

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Experimental Economics: Results You Can Trust
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A study led by Caltech's Colin Camerer reproducing experimental economics studies finds that published results in this field are actually quite reliable.

Caltech Names Six Distinguished Alumni

Caltech has announced that Eric Betzig (BS '83), Janet C. Campagna (MS '85), Neil Gehrels (PhD '82), Carl V. Larson (BS '52), Thomas J. "Tim" Litle IV (BS '62), and Ellen D. Williams (PhD '82) are this year's recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Award.

First presented in 1966, the award is the highest honor the Institute bestows upon its graduates. It is awarded in recognition of a particular achievement of noteworthy value, a series of such achievements, or a career of noteworthy accomplishment. Presentation of the awards will be given on Saturday, May 21, 2016, as part of Caltech's Seminar Day.

The 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients are

Eric Betzig (BS '83, Physics)

Physicist; Group Leader, Janelia Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Betzig is being recognized for his groundbreaking contributions to microscopy. He pioneered a method known as single-molecule microscopy, or "nanoscopy," which allows cellular structures at the nanoscale to be observed using optical microscopy. For the work, he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014.

Janet C. Campagna (MS '85, Social Science)

CEO, QS Investors

Campagna is being recognized for her contributions to quantitative investment and for her leadership in the financial industry. Campagna is the founder of QS Investors, LLC, a leading customized solutions and global quantitative equities provider. She is responsible for all business, strategic, and investment decisions within QS Investors. 

Neil Gehrels (PhD '82, Physics)

Chief of the Astroparticle Physics Laboratory, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Gehrels is being recognized for his scientific leadership in the study of gamma ray bursts as well as for his significant contributions to high-energy astrophysics, infrared astronomy, and instrument development.

Carl V. Larson (BS '52, Mechanical Engineering)

Larson is being recognized for his accomplished career in the electronics industry. Over the course of three decades, Larson has held numerous and diverse leadership roles in fields ranging from engineering to marketing. He is also being celebrated for his sustained commitment to the research, students, and alumni of Caltech.

Thomas J. "Tim" Litle IV  (BS '62, Engineering and Applied Science)

Founder and Chairman, Litle & Co.

Litle is being recognized for his revolutionary contributions to commerce. Through innovations such as the presorted mail program he developed for the U.S. Postal Service and the three-digit security codes on credit cards, Litle has made global business more efficient and secure.

Ellen D. Williams (PhD '82, Chemistry)

Director, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)

Williams is being recognized for her sustained record of innovation and achievement in the area of structural surface physics. She founded the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at the University of Maryland and was the chief scientist for BP. She now serves as director of the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA-E) in the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Caltech Names Six Distinguished Alumni
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The awardees range from the class of 1952 to the class of 1983, across a wide range of divisions.
Monday, February 29, 2016

Modeling molecules at the microscale

Visiting Writer Brings Muslim History to Life

On February 4, award-winning novelist and UC Riverside professor Laila Lalami visited Caltech as part of the writer-in-residence program. The program, which is supported by the James Michelin Distinguished Visitors program, was formally established in 2014 in the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences to bring professional writers to Caltech for a brief visit.

"The program brings novelists, essayists, poets, and short story writers to share their work with Caltech and the community," says Dehn Gilmore, professor of English and the program's coordinator. "Invitations are made by the suggestion of the faculty."

Lalami gave a public lecture titled "Muslims in America: A Forgotten History." Born and raised in Morocco, she explores questions of belonging, displacement, history, and identity in past and present Arab worlds. During the lecture she discussed the place of Muslims as individuals throughout American history, and read passages from her historical novel, The Moor's Account. The Pulitzer Prize–nominated story is based on the experiences of the first black explorer of America, Mustafa al-Zamori.

"Muslims have a very rich, long history in the U.S.," Lalami said. "And yet this history has been largely unexplored. What's erased from history often results in invisibility for those people, in the present."

In addition to the public talk, Lalani visited the course Perspectives on History through German Literature. Taught by Caltech professor of social science history Tracy Dennison, it examines 19th-century German history through literature from that period.

"The students were very interested to speak to Dr. Lalami about the interplay between fact and fiction in literary works set in past societies," Dennison says. "They were also interested in her thoughts on various aspects of the writing process—from the initial idea for a novel, to the editing process, to keeping distractions at bay while at the computer."

In the spring term, the program will welcome poet, novelist, and professor Ciaran Carson to campus in conjunction with the Irish literature class taught by Caltech professor of English Kevin Gilmartin. Carson will give a public talk and reading on May 17.

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Social Hormone Promotes Cooperation in Risky Situations

A hormone implicated in monogamy and aggression in animals also promotes trust and cooperation in humans in risky situations, Caltech researchers say.

The findings, published the week of February 8 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could prove useful for helping groups cooperate beneficially.

Research in rodents shows the hormone arginine vasopressin (AVP) promotes monogamous pair bonding and parental behavior, but also aggression in males. "Part of the dark side of monogamy is that an AVP-pumped-up male is more likely to behave aggressively toward intruders," says study coauthor Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at Caltech.

In the new study, Camerer and his team tested the hypothesis that AVP might also play a role in social bonding in people and could help explain our species' cooperative tendencies. "One of the reasons humans rule the world rather than apes is that we do things that require a great deal of trust. We cooperate in large-scale groups," Camerer says. "Where does that come from? Is it something like pair bonding but just scaled up? And if it is, what role does AVP play?"

To investigate these questions, Camerer and his colleagues administered a nasal spray containing AVP or a hormone-free nasal spray (a placebo) to 59 male volunteers, aged 19 to 32 years old. Pairs of subjects then used computers to play a so-called assurance game in which they had to choose whether or not to cooperate with another player; "assurance" comes from the fact that subjects will take a risky action if they are sufficiently assured that others will, too. When they cooperated, both players received more points than they would have if they did not mutually cooperate. If one player chose not to cooperate but his partner made the opposite decision, the non-cooperative player received an intermediate payoff whereas the cooperative player received nothing.

"The game is designed to mimic situations in which people are willing to help, but only if everyone else helps too," Camerer says. "Think of pitching in on a team project, or of a group of soldiers rushing the enemy. If a critical mass cooperates, then everyone else should go along. Thus it is in your best interest to help only if enough others do."

To help ensure the players were engaged, the points they accumulated were converted into actual money at the end of the game (usually around $20).

The experiment showed that players who received AVP before the game were significantly more likely to cooperate than those who received the placebo. "By targeting a specific hormonal system in the human brain, we could manipulate people's willingness to cooperate and help them do better," says Gideon Nave, a graduate student in Camerer's lab and a coauthor on the study.

Using control experiments, the researchers were also able to rule out other explanations for why the subjects were cooperating. For example, one possibility is that AVP was increasing the subjects' appetite for risks. Alternatively, the administered hormone might be amplifying their altruistic tendencies, so that they just wanted to help other people regardless of the risk to themselves.

"We found that when we asked them, 'Do you want to just give some money to this stranger?' they don't do it," Camerer says. "So AVP seems to be quite specialized to this particular type of risky cooperation."

To better understand the neural mechanism underlying AVP's effect on risky cooperation, the researchers conducted the same experiment but this time had subjects—a separate group of 34 men—play the game while their brains were being imaged using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The scans indicated that after AVP administration, a part of the brain's reward system known as the ventral pallidum—a region that is known to have an abundance of AVP receptors—showed a change in neural activity when the players decided to cooperate.

"That was very encouraging, because it showed that the hormone is activating a part of the brain that is known to be rich in AVP receptors," Camerer says.

Could the discovery that AVP increases the likelihood of risky cooperation have practical applications and be used, for example, to engender trust and foster cooperation in groups? Perhaps.

"You could imagine a high-stakes situation, such as a military operation, in which people have to trust each other to all do something difficult and it fails if anyone chickens out," Camerer says. "In that case, you might want to administer AVP to help ensure that everyone is cooperative."

In addition to Camerer and Nave, other coauthors on the paper, "Vasopressin increases human risky cooperative behavior," include Claudia Brunnlieb, Stephan Schosser, and Bodo Vogt of the University of Magdeburg and Thomas Münte and Marcus Heldmann at the University of Lübeck in Germany. The research was funded by a special grant of the Center for Behavioral Brain Sciences and by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. 

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A hormone implicated in monogamy and aggression in animals also promotes trust and cooperation in humans in risky situations, Caltech researchers say.

Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences Celebrates 50th Anniversary

"Life is not confined to equations and laboratory experiments." So wrote Hallett Smith, chairman of Caltech's Division of the Humanities, in a 1966 letter addressed to Arnold Beckman, then president of the Institute's board of trustees. In the letter, Smith described his faculty's hopes for a new building that would be constructed to house not only the humanists, but also the growing ranks of social scientists on campus. He wrote about the need for an appropriate setting for "courses focusing on the enormously complex problems of being a man—a creature who feels and dreams, loves and hates, hopes and despairs."

It would have been difficult for Smith to have anticipated then how much the faculty members in the humanities and social sciences at Caltech today would work with and rely on equations and experiments, but the sentiment behind his words holds true. Today's Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) is intensely focused on probing the mysteries of the human experience. And Caltech continues to place great importance on the breadth of its students' educations, requiring undergraduates to take almost a quarter of their required units in the humanities and social sciences.

When Smith wrote his letter, the division was just beginning a transformation. The first step in that transformation had been to include the social scientists, and especially to hire economists and political scientists. In fact, it was that same year, 1966, that "Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences" first appeared in Caltech's catalog. Prior to that, and dating back to 1926, when the Institute introduced divisions as an organizational structure, there had been only the Division of the Humanities.

That means this year marks the 50th anniversary of HSS as such. Throughout 2016, the division will be celebrating this anniversary with a lecture series, inviting distinguished HSS alumni and faculty members—both past and present—to speak about their work and the impact that their time at Caltech has had on their careers. All of the lectures will take place in Baxter Lecture Hall, in the building on campus that Smith and his faculty moved into in 1971—the Donald E. Baxter, MD, Hall of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

"The lecture series is a bit of a celebration, a bit of a look back, and also a time to consider where we, as a division, want to be going," says Jean-Laurent Rosenthal (PhD '88), HSS chair and the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics.

The first lecture will take place Thursday, January 28, at 5 p.m. Daniel Kevles, Yale University's Stanley Woodward Professor of History, Emeritus, and Caltech's J. O. and Juliette Koepfli Professor of the Humanities, Emeritus, will deliver a talk titled "Between the Archives and the Athenaeum: Caltech as Living History." Rosenthal notes that Kevles was "instrumental in creating history of science as it exists at Caltech today."

Over the last year, HSS has been compiling a history of research that the division has conducted since 1966. "We have accomplished a lot over the last half century," says Rosenthal. "And that work is quite different from what happened here before."

He explains that by the time Baxter Hall was dedicated in 1971, the division had a plan in place to continue its own transformation. All faculty would be expected not only to excel as instructors but also to conduct research. "Essentially they decided that all faculty at Caltech should be research scholars," says Rosenthal.

In the decades since, HSS has made its mark as a division both of researchers and of teachers. On the social sciences side, the division's scholars have pioneered experimental economics, helped develop the field of political economy, and are now leading the way in the fields of behavioral and social neuroscience. In the humanities, among other accomplishments, the Princeton University Press moved the Einstein Papers Project to Caltech in 2000, researchers have introduced new forms of historical narrative, and the division is a leader in the history and philosophy of science and technology.

Looking forward, Rosenthal emphasizes the importance of collaboration and interdisciplinary work for HSS's researchers. And he says there is a desire to have closer interaction between faculty members on campus and researchers at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. In that area, he says, a new program called the Caltech-Huntington Humanities Collaborations (CHHC) will build upon the success of the Materialities, Texts, and Images multidisciplinary program that started in 2013 to encourage research that revolves around material artifacts like those housed at The Huntington.

In addition to the growth of HSS research programs, Rosenthal notes that the division has a responsibility to Caltech students "to give them a breadth of experience." Besides offering dozens of courses in diverse fields, the division now offers seven undergraduate options—business, economics, and management; economics; English; history; history and philosophy of science; philosophy; and political science. It was not until 1965 that Caltech began offering bachelor of science degrees in the humanities—in history, English, or economics. HSS has PhD options in social science as well as behavioral and social neuroscience. Rosenthal adds, "Beyond the coursework, we also provide experience in areas of the human endeavor that students won't encounter in the physical and life sciences or in engineering."

"HSS has a variety of missions," he says. "We have made tremendous strides in the last 50 years. The goal is to keep becoming better."

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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The division will mark the anniversary with a lecture series. The first lecture will take place on Thursday, January 28.
Friday, January 29, 2016
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

Course Ombudsperson Training, Winter 2016

Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Beckman Institute Auditorium – Beckman Institute

"Words Are Obsolete": Explaining and Understanding in the Dynamic Medium

New Director of the Linde Institute: A Conversation with Jaksa Cvitanic

Jaksa Cvitanic, the Richard N. Merkin Professor of Mathematical Finance at Caltech, has been appointed director of The Ronald and Maxine Linde Institute of Economic and Management Sciences. An expert in financial economics, Cvitanic has interest in the Linde Institute's three core research areas: namely finance, entrepreneurship, and the interaction between computer science and economics. His goal in the role is to help the Institute continue to create an environment for interdisciplinary and creative research and education in business and economics.

Cvitanic grew up in Croatia and earned his BS and MS, both in mathematics, from the University of Zagreb. He came to the United States in 1988 and completed his MPhil and PhD in statistics at Columbia University. Later, he held faculty positions at Columbia University and at the University of Southern California (USC) before coming to Caltech in 2005. He was named the Merkin Professor in 2013.

We recently sat down with Cvitanic to talk about his work and his new position with the Linde Institute.

What would you say that you bring to the Linde Institute as its new director?

My primary field of research is finance and financial economics, so I bring experience in that regard. If you consider the Linde Institute's main topics of interest, I have done research in two of them—finance and the intersection between computer science and economics. And while I don't actually conduct research in entrepreneurship, I am involved in a start-up company that gives advice on how to allocate your money across different asset classes, so I am certainly interested in entrepreneurship from that point of view.

Also regarding the educational goals of the Linde Institute—to give students the opportunity to learn the skills they would need for careers in business and economics—I have been the adviser for the business, economics, and management (BEM) major at Caltech for 10 years. Many BEM students go on to work in finance, so I have a good perspective on the undergraduates' interest in these fields.

Can you tell us about the work you have been doing at the intersection between computer science and economics?

I have been looking at the question of how to design surveys and survey questionnaires to incentivize respondents to provide careful and truthful responses. In economics, people think of this as mechanism design, but it's also related to what computer science researchers call proper scoring rules, which involves assigning scores to survey respondents computed from their responses and rewarding them based on those scores.

Can you give us an example of how this works?

We are now working with a company that conducts market research surveys. They find that when respondents are asked to rate a retailer on a scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the best) most people naturally choose 10—just kind of being nice. Well, that doesn't provide much information.

We suggest asking respondents a second question that is related to the opinion of others—basically, "What do you think other people would choose?" There are algorithms that allow us to combine these two responses—what is your rating and what do you think other people think—in such a way that a respondent's score will be higher if he or she responds truthfully. If you reward them based on this score, they have an incentive to be more truthful in their responses.

How do you reward someone based on truthfulness?

Traditionally in these surveys, you pay all of the participants the same amount. But we tell participants from the outset that they will be paid according to their score and that their score is likely to be higher if they respond carefully and truthfully. This gives them an incentive to essentially compete against one another by being more careful in their responses.

What projects in finance are you currently working on?

One project has to do with optimal compensation of managers, whether they are portfolio managers or high-level executives. The existing theory assumes that a manager affects only the mean return of a project he is in charge of—not the risk. And in many cases, that's simply not true. For example, a CEO might decide to finance her company by issuing a certain amount of debt versus stocks or to hedge risks by using financial instruments. A portfolio manager or high-level executive whose actions result in lower risk and higher returns should be compensated differently than one whose actions result in higher risk and lower returns. We developed a new method for determining how best to compensate these managers.

In related but separate work, I am working with Lawrence Jin, a new faculty member in social sciences. We are looking at these problems in the case in which the manager or shareholders might have some behavioral preferences.

What types of preferences are those?

There is a whole field of behavioral finance and economics that studies how people make decisions. The classical theory before behavioral assumed that everyone was just super rational. Behavioral economics and finance realized, through experiments mostly, that people don't behave that way. There are many ways in which people depart from rational actions. So we're saying that you have to model the preferences of the manager to know the best way to provide incentives and compensate him—whether it's better to give him stocks in the company or cash, or a bonus or options. It depends really on how he values those things, and his preferences may be behavioral.

We are curious how you transitioned from originally studying mathematics and statistics to becoming an expert in finance?

When I came to the U.S. from the former Yugoslavia, the latter was a communist country, and I didn't know what a stock or a bond was, not to mention financial derivatives. But my PhD adviser was one of the fathers of financial mathematics, and he asked if I would mind working on a problem in finance. Today, finance is popular in applied mathematics, but at that time it wasn't considered real mathematics. I was fascinated by the subject and was happy to work on a mathematical problem that had finance applications.

At that time, not many people knew the techniques and the models that were being used for this type of finance, so I started receiving articles from top finance journals to referee. I kind of learned finance by refereeing papers for top journals, which is not a bad way to learn things.

Then, when I came to USC, I was in the math and economics departments, but I found out that a friend of mine from Columbia was teaching in the business school at USC. We started working together, and I learned a lot working with him. So it was partly my PhD thesis, partly refereeing people's papers, and partly doing joint research with a coauthor from a finance department.

What is your vision for the Linde Institute going forward?

One thing that I think has been very successful and that I would like to see us expand are the career panels. We bring Caltech alumni back to talk to students about their experiences working in a particular field. We've done this for finance, and we're thinking about doing this for the consulting industry and entrepreneurship. It works very well. The students are interested in seeing what types of careers former Caltech students have, and the alumni enjoy interacting with the students. We plan to host more of these events.

The Linde Institute has also been sponsoring graduate students and postdocs, as well as workshops in the fields of interest, and will continue doing that. Moreover, we have started the Summer Undergraduate Startup Internship (SUSI) program for Caltech undergraduate students under the supervision of Associate Professor of Finance and Entrepreneurship Michael Ewens. The program places Caltech students in high-quality startup companies for 10-week paid internships during which they gain exposure to the unique start-up environment and have the opportunity to develop their skills in a real-world business setting.

In the future, we would also like to help fund particularly original and creative faculty projects for which it would otherwise be hard to find funds. These would be projects in the social sciences crossed with engineering and computer science. Interdisciplinarity would definitely be an important component.

To summarize, it's about creating an environment in which interdisciplinary, original research involving the social sciences and quantitative fields can thrive. It boils down to two things, which are education and research. There are not many places like Caltech where students can learn from experts from so many different fields in a natural way. They don't have to put in a lot of effort to be interdisciplinary. It's just already there. The Linde Institute is emphasizing that even more and providing infrastructure for it.

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Jaksa Cvitanic will continue to nurture an environment for interdisciplinary, creative research and education in business and economics.

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