Noshir Contractor, the Jane S. and William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the Department of Communication Studies in the School of Communication, the McCormick School of Engineering, and in the Kellogg School of Management, was elected in November a 2019 fellow to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest multidisciplinary science society.
Contractor was one of five Northwestern faculty members to receive the honor. He is a leading researcher in the formation, maintenance, and dissolution of social knowledge networks, which might include those in business, science, public health, and virtual communities. He heads the Science of Networks in Communities (SONIC) lab at Northwestern, has published hundreds of scholarly articles, has received multitudes of awards and fellowships, and conducts research that is funded by NASA, Air Force Research Lab, Army Research Institute, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the McArthur Foundation, and more.
One sizable effect of Contractor’s scholarship is how it has lent credence to the field of communication as a scientific discipline. His work often straddles computer and social science, examining how society impacts technology and vice versa. By incorporating communication into what is often the purview of the traditional sciences, he has contributed to opening up the field—and is being duly lauded for it.
“AAAS is what I would call pan-disciplinary recognition, so it’s not restricted to a single discipline,” Contractor says. “The people who making decisions about AAAS Fellows recognize scholarship and engagement that is not just restricted to a single discipline but is being recognized or impacting people across disciplines. It also has the component of outreach built into it…that to me is significant.”
Significant but perhaps not terribly surprising to Contractor, who has appointments in three Northwestern departments and operates in the “interstitial spaces between disciplines,” as he calls it. “I am all the more appreciative that this contribution is being recognized by AAAS because it is something I strive for and feel strongly and passionate about.”
Contactor says that four major efforts in his career—two projects and two initiatives—have heavily engaged AAAS, be it through organizing panels or participating in conferences to share knowledge. The most recent is his work with the NASA-funded Journey to Mars, in which his SONIC lab is collaborating with the ATLAS lab (directed by professor and communication studies department chair Leslie DeChurch) to identify traits, values, and characteristics that will allow NASA to compose a crew that can successfully complete the nearly three-year mission to the Red Planet and back. Contractor and DeChurch presented this research at the AAAS conference last winter. The second project involves Contractor’s research of human behavior and team building in online gaming environments, which was showcased at AAAS panel about 10 years ago, when sourcing data in this realm was much more difficult. The two initiatives involved him coalescing panels and other events to discuss both network science and computational social science.
Contractor is one of 443 2019 fellows and among 24 recognized in the section on Information, Computing, and Communication.
“This area is one that has traditionally been dominated, by people who are in computer or information science, and it is gratifying that they are recognizing the social aspects of information, computing, and communication,” Contractor says. “Even established, traditional institutions like AAAS…are becoming more welcoming and inclusive and recognizing that these areas need to be broader than they might have been in the past. It helps bring visibility to the discipline of communication.”
Contractor continues to work on the Mars project, and his SONIC lab, with the ATLAS lab, has recently been awarded an Army Research Lab grant to study human-robot teams—specifically how humans work with other humans in the presence of robots.
Contractor and the other 2019 fellows will be recognized at a ceremony on February 15, 2020 in Seattle. The other Northwestern fellows are Jennifer Cole, Vicky Kalogera, Michael Miksis, and Farhad Yusef-Zadeh
The AAAS seeks to “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.” Founded in 1848, AAAS has members in 91 countries and includes nearly 250 affiliated societies and academies of science. It publishes the journal Science, which has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world.