Jay Taneja wouldn’t be the first person (or, to be fair, the 1,000th) you’d think of if I asked you to name a public expert.
He’s not on TikTok. He’s tweeted exactly once. He hasn’t written a best-selling book. He doesn’t have a hot podcast — or any podcast.
Now, Taneja does and leads some fascinating research. An assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and science at UMass Amherst, he’s interested in how infrastructure (like roads and energy grids) performs in developing economies, and how to improve the access to energy of hundreds of millions of people who don’t have enough of it.
First, because conventional data is often poor in these situations — so poor that the normal analyses of the questions Taneja wants to answer can’t be done. There aren’t a lot of road sensors or cell-phone-using drivers in non-industrialized parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. So Taneja and his lab at UMass Amherst come up with ways to harvest and analyze other data — from satellites, the Internet of Things and mobile systems — to shed light on, for example, road quality and electric power instability in those places.
The second reason Taneja’s research is fascinating? Because it’s what the future of research looks like. And that’s not just because he’s using machine learning.
Taneja was a guest on High Energy Planet, the podcast of the Energy for Growth Hub (one of my clients). During the episode, co-host Rose Mutiso (herself a materials engineer) asked him about his seemingly unusual path as an engineer:
ROSE: You address human well-being questions that are usually posed by social scientists. You move really effectively within the development community. And you have a lot of partnerships in Africa, all while pursuing a rigorous technical research agenda within the ivory tower. So speaking as an engineer myself I found myself exiled to some kind of no-man’s land between academic research and policy, which is true of many of our peers who are interested in development and social impact. So how have you managed to strike this unique balance between academic research, development sector, and real-world impact? Like what is your secret?
Taneja’s response to Rose’s cuts to the heart of what separates both research’s past from its future, and effective public experts from those who just have good PR support:
JAY: At core engineering is about problem-solving. And I think it’s important to recognize that the world has changed. The younger generations are really keen on solving problems that they see, that they experience, that they learn about. Information — we’re awash in information — now it’s about organizing that information and making use of it. So I see myself at the beginning of what will probably take over a lot more of engineering departments. It used to be we would celebrate the scientists and engineers who worked tirelessly in the lab by themselves and, you know, blocked out the rest of the world. That’s no longer the way that engineering can work. We really need to find the problems out there, solve the problems out there, and have context beyond a kind of narrow focus in one particular area, whatever else. While it’s important to make that (shift), you know, 5% more efficient, 10% more efficient, that’s only part of engineering, not all of engineering. And so I think there’s lots of energy from government, from the donor community, from private companies to really look at the world’s problems and address them more systematically, more holistically. And my research aims to – our team’s research aims to not just focus on the technical problems behind how do we make use of these data sets, but really why do we care about that? What’s important? What does it improve in the world? And so it was crucial to understand context just as much as it was to understand the technology and how things are changing, and how to do systems-based research. And so that’s what we in our group tend to focus on is understanding both the newest techniques of how to work with data sets, but also what are the problems for infrastructure and electricity systems and how are those evolving in different parts of the world?
A commitment to problem-discovery and problem-solving.
Wide context well beyond niche specialties.
Systematic, synthetic, holistic solutions.
A focus beyond the technical to why we should care about your research and what it improves in the world.
In a world of a) increasing funder and public pressure for relevance and b) younger cohorts being “really keen on solving problems that they see,” this is what the future of research and the future of being a public expert look like. Indeed, before any “public engagement” skills or training, these qualities are what make a really good public expert now. If we have these in hand, your unique story — the unique value you deliver as an expert to the world — becomes easy to write.
Oh, but you’re not an engineer, you say? As Jay said, engineers, too, used to think they could block out the rest of the world.
And then the world changed.