Induction in the AAA&S

from Spaf's Thoughts

Oct 7, 2020, 5:38:44 PM

As I type this, I am being inducted as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This is the mission statement of the organization:

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences honors excellence and convenes leaders from every field of human endeavor to examine new ideas, address issues of importance to the nation and the world, and work together “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

This is considered a great honor, with a long history of recognition of outstanding achievers. I’m still a bit amazed by being selected.

Here is my acceptance letter that captures some of my thoughts about this:

June 24, 2020

Dr. Nancy Andrews and Dr. David Oxtoby

American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Norton’s Woods

136 Irving Street

Cambridge, MA 02138-1966

Greetings,

I have decided to write a paper letter of acceptance to accompany my prior, emailed acceptance of the honor you have extended to me. It has taken me these many weeks to think through what I wanted to write. I have written this letter several time and still am uncertain if I have fully captured my thoughts about this singular honor.

When I started my undergraduate degree 45 years ago, I had no particular illusion of achieving distinction. However, I did hope to excel in my studies and was fortunate to do so.  I knew I wanted to set my sights on lofty goals but I was unsure of what I wanted to pursue, other than to have some positive effect.  

Early in my studies, I discovered an interest in and facility with computing. The more I studied, the more interested I became, Computer science, as a discipline, is devoted to the study of what can be computed, and how to structure and optimize those computations. However, my primary interests were somewhat outside of that scope. I was more focused on how computing might affect the lives of people who used — or misused — computers.  My focus in computing was thus more how to build and operate the systems to advance human values. This interest was unusual for the time, and not all of my professors and peers understood it, although they appreciated my intent to work in academia and generally supported my pursuits.  I had found my path.

Over the last three decades, my professional work has continued to stress an interdisciplinary approach to reliable computing, including work in fault tolerance, software engineering, cybersecurity, and privacy. I have been fortunate to have support here at Purdue to build a research center and inspire others with my vision. However, through the years, some of my colleagues have stated that what I am doing is not science, is not research, merely is systems maintainance, and is “fuzzy thinking.” Even some of my colleagues here at Purdue to this day dismiss what I do as “not scholarly” despite contrary evidence in the form of recognition by organizations in the field.

My election to the American Academic of Arts and Sciences is very welcome. Obviously, I appreciate the recognition by a distinguished body that I have achieved at a significant level.  Perhaps more importantly, this is a notable recognition outside the technical confines of my field. The Academy recognizes contributions to society from many different perspectives and approaches: art is an ally of science, social sciences and technical disciplines contribute together, and achievement has many metrics.  That broad perspective aligns with how I have striven to shape what “cybersecurity” should be — not merely crafting computers to restrict certain behaviors but to build ecosystems that are supportive of human well-being.  Thus, I view my election to the Academy as an external validation of the approach I have taken, and I am deeply grateful for that.

In summary, I am deeply humbled at this honor. I am grateful to those who have supported me in my efforts who undoubtedly should share some in this if there was a way to recognize them; none of us labors in isolation. I look forward to the induction and, thereafter, my involvement in the Academy.

With gratitude,

Eugene H, Spafford, Ph.D.
Professor and Emeritus Executive Director

As a Fellow of ACM, IEEE, ISSA, ISC², AAAS, and now AAA&S, I guess perhaps I have made an impact — much more than I imagined in my wildest dreams. At least others seem to think so, even if I am not so sure of it.

What’s more, I managed to achieve this despite people who thought what I was doing wasn’t important, wasn’t scholarly, and wasn’t CS. I haven’t pursued my goals based on funding or current trends. I have continued to try to fix problems that vex others, and to seek to do what is right.

You too can change the world. Focus on doing good things for others, and even if you don’t get a recognition like this you will still make a difference that really matters. And don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t happen right away!