By Kim Sanchez, director, Trustworthy Computing Communications, Microsoft

What do computer science and social issues have in common?  A lot more than might you think.  For starters, computer science is being used to help solve some of the toughest issues that we’re facing around the world.

“Advances in computer science can be potentially transformative in sectors that make up the fabric of society: health care, transportation, energy, agriculture, and education,” says Dr. Jeannette Wing, Microsoft vice president and head of Microsoft Research International. 

Within the computer science community, Dr. Wing is well-known for her advocacy of  “computational thinking,” an approach to problem solving, designing systems and understanding human behavior that draws upon concepts fundamental to computer science.  It’s about asking the right questions combined with the important skills that most subjects help develop, like creativity, ability to explain and team work.  Dr. Wing sees it as a “universally applicable attitude and skill set that everyone, not just computer scientists, should be eager to learn and use.”

In her three-page article in the Communications of the ACM entitled Five Deep Questions in Computing she asks thought provoking questions to the computer-science community in order to start a specific dialogue around problem solving using key science drivers.

- Is there a complexity theory for analyzing our real-world computing systems as there is for the algorithms we invent?

It's women like Dr. Wing who fit perfectly into the National Women’s History month theme “Inspiring Innovation through Imagination.” By celebrating women in science, technology engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM subjects, we’re helping to focus on those women seizing valuable STEM opportunities, to leap forward and make the kinds of changes that will create the foundation for the next wave of innovation. 

Dr. Wing joined Microsoft Research (MSR) in January 2013, and is responsible for MSR’s research laboratories in Bangalore, India; Cambridge, UK; and Beijing, China.  From 2007 to 2010, she served as assistant director of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF), where she led the directorate that funds academic computer science research in the United States. In this capacity, she worked with NSF staff to set funding priorities for the academic science and engineering research community, create new programs, and represent the nation’s computer science community.  

“I’m especially pleased to see young researchers who are courageous enough to bet their computer-science careers on addressing societal grand challenges,” says Dr. Wing.  “It’s exciting to be in computer science right now, because it’s not just computer science for computer science’s sake, but about helping society.”

While STEM expertise likely holds the key to address global challenges such as finding cures for diseases, eradicating poverty and reducing childhood mortality these subjects, are arguably the foundation of our global economic future. Such skills are essential for almost any job, and are certainly imperative for nations to compete in an evolving marketplace.

“Many people equate computer science with computer programming.  Some parents see only a narrow range of job opportunities for their children who major in computer science. Many people think the fundamental research in computer science is done and that only the engineering remains. Computational thinking is a grand vision to guide computer science educators, researchers, and practitioners as we act to change society’s image of the field. We especially need to reach the pre-college audience, including teachers, parents, and students, sending them two main messages: Intellectually challenging and engaging scientific problems remain to be understood and solved. The problem domain and solution domain are limited only by our own curiosity and creativity.”

Like other companies across the information technology sector, Microsoft is creating new jobs in the U.S. faster than what can be filled. More than 6,000 jobs are open with more than 3,400 of these jobs for researchers, developers and engineers, and this total has grown by 34 percent during the past 12 months. 

To shine a light on the need for more women like Dr. Wing, and advocate for STEM subjects, the company recently published a detailed whitepaper documenting ideas for a National Talent Strategy that would help stimulate economic growth.

In her Communications of the ACM article entitled Five Deep Questions in Computing, Dr. Wing writes, “The field of computing is driven by boundless technological innovation and societal expectations…While it is easy to be swept away by the cool things we do, we should not forget that the field also contributes to fundamental scientific knowledge. So let's take a step back from the frenzy and think about the science computing pursues.”  To that end, she’s asking the right questions to help problem solve for our future.

For more on Microsoft’s work in this area, visit:  www.microsoft.com/publicpolicy.