“Hardly any other city of this size has so much to offer”

Arne Bathke is the Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences in Salzburg. In this interview with #meetSalzburg, he tells us why Salzburg is such an attractive location for congress participants and why you don't need to be at Harvard to do good science.

#meetSalzburg: Dean Bathke, we are meeting at the University of Natural Sciences in Salzburg. It is situated within the protected, beautiful Freisaal landscape. Are you able to enjoy that fact and are the guests you invite impressed?

Arne Bathke: Generally speaking, this is a great place to work. In addition to the cultural ambience with an incredible music scene, as far as classical music is concerned, we have recreational possibilities where you can jog straight from home to the Gaisberg or go cycling. Salzburg is also a cultural heritage site. That makes it incredibly easy for us to get top international scientists here for conferences, workshops, or longer visits, simply because the location is appealing. And what many people still don't know is that our university conducts cutting-edge research in a number of fields. Of course, thanks only to this can we contact the top scientists from abroad because they don't want to come as simple tourists, but rather to meet professionals on site and be part of scientific advancements. You don't have to be at Harvard to do good science, you can do that at smaller universities, too. At any rate, I really love the fact that we have such a great location.

You are originally from Hamburg, studied in Göttingen, made a career in the USA — in Kentucky — so you have seen quite a lot. What made you come to Salzburg?

Because of my honeymoon when we were hiking from southern Germany to Italy. The route took us through Innsbruck, which my American wife liked so much that she said: “If there is ever a chance to work there, feel free to send an application.” Just that summer, the statistics professorship in Salzburg was vacant. We were both established in the USA, had permanent, well-paid jobs, had bought a house — we were doing well, but after ten years there, the thought of doing something different was appealing. So, this job opening in Salzburg made it all come together, and I haven't looked back.

You are a mathematician with a focus on statistics, have been able to establish data science as a field of study for the first time in Austria, and have initiated your own conferences. So, it’s possible to make things happen here?

Absolutely. One of the great strengths of Salzburg as a university location is that it’s not too big. Here in Salzburg, with everything being much smaller, you are virtually forced into interdisciplinarity. That can be a challenge at times, but also a blessing, because the great challenges for mankind can only be solved with interdisciplinary and international cooperation. That’s exactly what we’ve done with data science. The Master's programme is set up in such a way that it is highly interdisciplinary. Statistics with information technology, plus questions of ethics, law, and communication. A typical mathematician or computer scientist doesn't always like to talk, but as a data scientist you have to since you’re right at the heart of a company. It was easy to set up such an interdisciplinary course of study here, because there is a great openness among the professors to work with others. We have also received a lot of support from the state and city of Salzburg, as well as from the Federation of Austrian Industry, that has established an endowed professorship for us. We have been offering the course since 2016 and have since had contact with around 25 companies and authorities throughout Austria, where our students do internships. I never expected us to be able to build such a network so quickly. You see, Salzburg also has a technologically creative economy. I wasn't aware of that before. I used to think of Salzburg predominantly as a city of music.

In terms of data, you speak of ‘golden nuggets’, ‘golden knowledge’ that may be slumbering in corporate computers. How do you unearth such treasures?

There is actually a bit of a hype around big data. For us, the first step is usually to visualise the data. That can be an art in itself. Data is not just a numerical graphic left to the computer, but rather it takes a lot of creativity to create meaningful and informative pictures. Though we speak of ‘machine learning,’ a certain amount of experience is required that that machines simply don’t have. If we statisticians now find a structure in the data, then we ask ourselves whether it is a coincidence or whether there is a system behind it. I'll give you an example: If a customer buys three different items in a shop and then also a fourth, it could be a coincidence. We statisticians can say that there is a certain rule where he buys a fourth item once he has the other three.

So, a retailer who knows a lot about the subject can control customer behaviour?

Such knowledge does, of course, offer potential added value for a business. But we also try to sensitise the students when observing the other side of the coin. We look into certain ethical conflicts — what can and should be done with data. For example, in mechanical engineering: if I know that certain weak points will cause premature failure, I can build better machines and thus achieve added value.

A piece of trend research with a claim of scientific truth...

The hundred-year history of statistics is a huge treasure trove, also of mistakes made in science. A well-trained statistician understands the fallacies behind each one. There's a beautiful saying: Those who ignore statistics will inevitably make all the mistakes of the last hundred years again. And that is what we are seeing in the context of the hype surrounding big data.

“You don't have to be at Harvard to do good science.”

Is this part of what motivates you to improve the image of statistics and help raise it to a level where it can no longer be dismissed as fake?

Yes, it is. It's about learning to do precise work, no matter what discipline.

When will Salzburg become a convention centre for statistics?

In 2016, my working group held the first international convention here, the Salzburg Statistics Festival. It took place the week before the city’s festival of music. It was really successful and made an impression. Together with my partner in Ulm, we are now organising the second edition of the conference to be held there. Next year, we will be hosting the tenth edition of a renowned statistics conference series here. I think it will be possible here. Salzburg is not only beautiful and such, but also in the centre of Europe, in the centre of Austria. That in itself has potential, besides our many personal scientific contacts all over the world.

You are doing that here at the Faculty of Natural Sciences, the campus described earlier, in the middle of the green belt south of the Old Town. How can you make use of the ambience for conferences?      

Very well. Our scientists do it regularly. Every year we host AGIT, a large, internationally renowned geoinformatics conference. It attracts a thousand people every year. They set a real example with their environmental awareness, even green certification. In addition, we host several conferences with 50 to a few hundred participants. Just this week, there was a geological conference about the Carpathians with guests from 25 countries. It’s always a very inspiring experience when top scientists come here from all over the world. It is particularly important to us that they feel very welcome.

Can other people host events here, too? I mean not just Salzburg University’s own professors.

Yes, it is possible. They do have to undergo a certain screening, though. Questionable, esoteric topics or anything that we don't consider to be science has no place at the university as it would damage our reputation.

What about the supporting programme?

We then usually host a conference dinner at a beautifully situated restaurant with Austrian cuisine. It's incredibly popular, particularly among our friends from America and China. After a day of scientific lectures, you stroll through the baroque Old Town and enjoy the ambience. The city and state are always generous, too. If you secure a prestigious conference, they are happy to invite you to a reception. In that case, you visit Salzburg Residenz or Mirabell Palace. Hardly any other city of this size has so much to offer.

About the Dean:

Arne Bathke, born in 1972 in Hamburg, came to Salzburg in 2012 via Kentucky, where he had become a university professor in just a few years. Since 2015, the scientist who earnt his doctorate in mathematics in Göttingen has been Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences. He teaches statistics. The pastor's son plays the trumpet, organ, and piano. He has a harpsichord in his office, which he plays during breaks. He likes to start lectures with classical music. He doesn't have a car and runs marathons. Bathke received several awards in the USA, including for his commitment in the fight against the war in Iraq. That's when he met his wife. The couple has a daughter.

“It's incredibly easy for us to get scientists here, simply because the location is appealing.”

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