Leader Profile: The Burgeoning Field of Network Science

The Military Engineer recently had the opportunity to speak with Frederick I. Moxley, Ph.D., the Defense Information Systems Agency Fellow and Visiting Professor at the U.S. Military Academy (USMA), regarding the new field of network science. Dr. Moxley is one of the leaders guiding the development of network science and its application to today’s defense challenges.
Interview by Maj. Paul E. Patterson, P.E., M.SAME, USA

Q: What is Network Science and how did it come about?
A: Network science can be described as the disciplined study of networks: networks of people, influence and technology. Although a relatively new field, network science can trace its roots to the 18th century, when discrete mathematics evolved into what came to be known as graph theory. Graph theory was first used to describe the properties of diverse linkages and pathways—what we now refer to as networks.

Graph theory is still in use today and is considered a viable tool when describing probability distributions. Even so, it has been noted that graph theory often falls short when applied to real-world concerns. In particular, it is limited in its ability to deal with both theoretical and empirical questions, presumes that networks are static and does not provide the basis in which to comprehend their behavior. In other words, graph theory alone is incomplete and the existing void still needs to be addressed.

Military strategists have taken note of this gap and, in particular, the fact that the current fundamental knowledge about networks is primitive and that networks’ behavior is not reliably predictable. To address these shortcomings, an interdisciplinary approach became necessary. One in which the framework to enhance our collective knowledge could be built. This requires a thorough examination of the field and the processes that presently exist in order to determine how we can expand our current perspectives regarding networks – in essence, a field that focuses on and proliferates research as it pertains to the establishment of a network—in essence, a science.

As a result, the field of network science establishes the methodologies appropriate to various domains and uses them to gain new knowledge of how these networks behave and proliferate.

Q: Why is the military interested in network science?
A: The Department of Defense has been interested in networks and networking and its effect on command and control for quite some time. For instance, in books such as Network Centric Warfare, Power to the Edge and Understanding Command and Control, Dr. David Alberts from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, laid out the impact of information and networks, the threats we face and the opportunities we have to counter those threats.

Also in 2005, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences issued findings that urged the Army to develop and evolve network science into a broader discipline. That report noted that networks occur at various levels, including information networks that bring data together, communication networks that carry information, biological networks that form metabolic pathways, cognitive networks that provide a shared understanding of the situation, and common doctrines and social networks of trust and influence. Each of these encompasses specific domains, but they all have certain issues in common that the military could learn from and capitalize on.

Q: In which areas do you think network science will have the largest impact initially?

We’ve already had successful outcomes of network science research at the Military Academy. In particular, several cadet projects have produced results that benefit our military forces, and contribute significantly to the field as a whole.

For instance, one project, known as ELICIT, is a five-year experiment that provides us with the ability to better understand shared belief in hierarchical and self-organizing organizations. This effort is producing insights into how the internet and other information technologies allow us to understand the links that are formed between people and how people form hubs, in turn, to attain certain levels of informal power. From this we can learn how terrorists promote their ideology.

There are also other research projects in the works that include many of the life sciences, as well as the behavioral and physical sciences that will help to validate and refine the net- centric paradigm, both idealistically and operationally.

Q: What challenges do you see ahead with regard to network science?
A: Recognizing the current state of the field, there is a need for basic research to increase our understanding of networks. We need to have new tools and insights in order to better understand and affect each kind of network we want to build or counter. Also, predicting the behavior of networks is difficult, most notably the behavior of all kinds of networks as they continue to increase in size. So the ability to obtain and assess this type of data is in high demand.

What’s more, to better understand these issues will require additional research, experimentation and training over the long term. Hence, a follow-on report by the National Research Council was recently released that outlines the strategy for an Army Center for Network Science, Technology, and Experimentation.

It is our intent to support this strategy by training our future leaders in network science by way of an evolving curricula and the instantiation of our Network Science Center here at the USMA.


For more information, visit www.netscience.usma.edu.

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