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AAAS Fellow Daniel Berg Receives Siwei Cheng 'Genius' Award

AAAS Fellow Daniel Berg was awarded the Siwei Cheng Award in Information Technology and Quantitative Management last month. Berg received the award at the second annual International Academy of Informational Technology and Management meeting in Moscow for having "devoted genius efforts to applying quantitative methods and information technology to solve management problems."

Currently a distinguished research professor in the University of Miami's College of Engineering, Berg previously served as dean and provost at Carnegie Mellon University and provost and president at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, after working at Westinghouse Electric in a variety of roles. AAAS MemberCentral blogger Summer Allen spoke with Berg about his award, career and advice for young scientists.

AAAS Member Central blogger Summer Allen: You have a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Yale but received the Siwei Cheng award for your research about using quantitative methods and information technology to solve management problems. Can you briefly describe the work that led to this award?
Daniel Berg, distinguished research professor at the University of Miami:
When I started my own [research] program, I noted that academics had neglected the service economy for their research. They focused on manufacturing and product development. I've done my research on looking at the role of technology in the service sector, which, again, the academic community had neglected. It was one of the lucky—although planned—things that I've done in my career. I was ahead of the time, and that's a good position to be in because almost anything you do is making a contribution. I've gotten a lot of colleagues involved and so I was lucky. It was based on working on it but I was also lucky that I developed the program literally a decade or two before it became big. That's how this award came about.

AAASMC: Can you give an example of how information technology has been used to solve management problems?
I'll give you my famous example to make my point about the role of technology in the service sector. You have the biggest retail place in the world—that's Walmart. Walmart, with all of its other attributes, does deliver on bringing low cost to the public. The way they do that is they have a very sophisticated information technology system where when you buy something at the Walmart store, [and] immediately the store records what you bought. That information goes to the local regional headquarters, it goes to corporate headquarters, it goes to the warehouse, it goes to the supplier to learn how much inventory is in the warehouse and in the store—and when they should produce more and deliver it to the warehouse and deliver to the store. But also the suppliers of the suppliers get that information. So there is a tight-knit system based on knowing exactly what was sold and how much is left at their different locations for their supply chain.

All of that is based on a point-of-sales cash register so that when you buy something it registers to all of these places. That cash register is not patented by Walmart, but it's patented by IBM—so IBM sells more cash registers than anyone else. That technology is crucial for Walmart to do what it does. Most of the technology in the service sector doesn't come out of the service sector. Most of it comes out of the goods sector. Like FedEx is dependent on Boeing airplanes to do everything. Walmart is dependent on IBM to do what it does. So my colleague and I did a study of patents: Who does the patenting for the service sector? It turns out, mainly the goods sector.

AAASMC: What was your reaction when you received the award?
I was surprised, but I also enjoyed it and accepted it graciously. The truth of the matter is, I thought it was nice recognition for the contributions I've done—but calling it a genius award is going a little too far.

The other nice thing is that it is named after Siwei Cheng and he was there and he gave me the award. That's nice that the founder of the award was the one presenting it to me.

AAASMC: What advice do you have for young scientists?
There is a tremendous world out there and a lot of things that you can contribute that you enjoy. I told my students and I tell anyone now: Sometimes you have to work to survive but most of us will have a choice at some stage to work on the thing that we enjoy doing—and that is the job to go find. When you find that job you'll be more effective, you'll do a better job, you'll be rewarded—you don't know how, but as has happened to me, something will reward you—and you'll make a contribution and you'll be recognized. That's the perfect combination and it was certainly true in my career.

People have a history of eventually, if they're lucky, ending up in the right position. I think that's what happened to me. I think it happens to a lot of people, and I kind of hope it's true of everyone—that they use their talents. You start out in certain way and everything that you've done in your past turns out to be useful. You don't know that when you do them, but I think that turns out to be true.