Best shares thoughts on new UN position

With his recent appointment as director of the newly formed United Nations University Institute on Computing and Society (UNU-CS), Dr. Michael Best, associate professor in the School of International Affairs and School of Interactive Computing at Tech, will be taking a leave of absence from the university. Although Best will be accepting the four-year position based in Macau, China, he will always “remember [his] home at Tech.” The Technique talked to Best to gauge his feelings towards his recent appointment.

Technique: What was your reaction when you found out you were selected as the director for the UNU-CS based in Macau, China?

Best: I was excited. It was a combination of excitement and intimidation because it really is a fascinating and marvelous new opportunity, but it is a little daunting.

Technique: Is there anything that you are particularly intimated by?

Best: One challenge is that it really is a start-up. There is no staff. I am essentially the first staff member for the Institute, so one of the unique opportunities and challenges is to build a core set of researchers from nothing. Sometimes I wake up in the morning thinking that is the most amazing thing I have ever had the chance to do, and other times I wake up thinking that is the most insane, impossible thing I have ever had the chance to do.

Technique: What specifically will you do in your role? Are there any particular initiatives that you plan on prioritizing?

Best: My role is essentially the CEO of the Institute. I am responsible for setting the vision, the overall hiring strategy, and day-to-day management. I must keep the place running. In terms of initiatives I plan on undertaking that is something I plan on answering the first few months while I’m on the job. What is the intellectual space that we really want to focus on? The mandate for the institution is rather broad. It is anything that has to do with computing and communication technologies and the developing world. Our purpose is to perform world-class research while also being policy impactful on the United Nations. So, that’s quite a large space.

Technique: I understand that you have been involved with monitoring elections in Africa; do you plan on using those skills in your new position?

Best: I certainly intend to continue my own research agenda at least part-time while I’m directing the Institute. One piece of the Institute’s work will focus on civil engagement and political development. In addition, I do a lot of work in peace building and computing in conflict-stress environments, and I suspect I will continue on with some of those initiatives. I have to be realistic about how much time I will have to devote to research compared to when I was just working as a faculty member here at Tech. Realistically, I will have to slow down on some of my research activities.

Technique: How do you feel your time at Tech has prepared you for this role?

Best: As part of Tech’s strategic goals, I have been very supported in my interest to have international reach and policy impact. I think this job will add to my skill-set in that I will have more direct management experience. Here at Tech I manage my research lab of students and collaborators but that is different than running a research center of scholars and support staff.

Technique: What is the thing you will miss the most about Tech?

Best: I know I will miss the students here at Tech. Of course, I hope to bring some with me. We are looking at opportunities to have Tech students come for a summer, a week, or a term. I will miss a lot of my friends and colleagues here on campus but also in the general Atlanta area.

Technique: What are you most looking forward to in China?

Best: Well besides just the exciting opportunity for building this new research institute, it is an amazing part of the world to have a chance to live in. The Pearl River Delta is exploding in entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity. Just to be able to be there and participate some in this amazing dynamic will be exciting.

Technique: For students that might want to go down on this United Nations career path, what steps do you recommend they take now in preparation?

Best: The United Nations is a strange organization in terms of hiring. Some parts have early professional career positions for young people. Many parts expect advanced degrees—Masters and PhDs specifically. So it is a very diverse organization with frankly unusual hiring practices. That said the UN is global. I think any Tech student who has an interest in pursuing an United Nations career should have international experience that should start now.