Jan 24, 2012 | Author: Sally Ann Flecker
I’m eager to meet with Jonathan Caulkins and don’t want to be late. I think I know where I’m going, too, thanks to his easy-to-follow directions. His office is in the south end of the east wing of Hamburg Hall, which houses classrooms and offices for Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College on the Pittsburgh campus. As I make my way through hallways dotted by clusters of students, I lose my bearings and hurriedly revisit his directions. Back on track, I reach his office and knock on the door. The H. Guyford Stever Chair in Operations Research and Public Policy opens it and cordially greets me. As I glance around the room, I’m struck by its orderly, pristine appearance. Later, as we talk, I’ll realize that the state of his office and the directions he gives are indicative of how his mind works, especially when it comes to his writing.
Caulkins has been getting kudos for a book that came out last summer: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know. The book is one in a series from Oxford University Press, the world’s largest university press with the widest global presence. The series is meant to shed light on topics of our times, everything from overfishing to nuclear energy to China in the 21st century. The world’s illicit drug problem is the topic of Caulkins’ book, which he wrote with his two longtime collaborators—drug and public policy experts Mark A. R. Kleiman at UCLA and Angela Hawken at Pepperdine.
Caulkins, like most professors, has plenty of experience publishing academic papers, which have a narrowly defined audience, usually peers who are already well versed in the given subject. For the Oxford book, the intention was to have the book’s content be reader friendly for the general public. The book’s structure, much like an FAQ format, has resonated with a wide audience. Caulkins says he’s received feedback from hundreds of people: “Everybody from big muckety-mucks to congressional staffers to people on the street.”
In one of several glowing reviews of the book, Forbes.com contributor Rich Danker writes: “[Drugs and Drug Policy] is fit for both the policymaker and the concerned parent (how many books can this be said of?) because it combines a rigorous analytical approach to drugs without skipping over the social reasons the topic deserves to be discussed in the home.”
Caulkins’ expertise in society’s illicit drug problems stems from his background in operations research, an interdisciplinary field that applies mathematical and engineering tools to complex decision-making. His research serves, in part, to advance the understanding of optimal control theory, what he calls a “weird kind of math.” It involves a set of differential equations that describe a system evolving over time—whether that system is the state of a rocket moving through space or the state of an epidemic spreading through a population. What interests Caulkins especially are phenomena that emerge when a system is nonlinear: chaos, tipping points, and what is called the “butterfly effect,” where a small change at one place has a big effect farther down the road. His work in optimal control theory is all over the map—in areas such as fashion, public housing, and capital investment, to name a few.
The substantive body of his work lies in the area of drug control; it’s where he started. As an MIT doctoral student looking for a dissertation topic, he visited research groups working on transportation, energy, environment, and telecommunication issues. “And these groups of 70 people said, ‘Sure! Join us! And here’s the little piece of it you can work on,’” he recalls. “I thought it would be more fun to try to structure a problem that engineers hadn’t studied before.”
He didn’t have to look far to find a pressing problem. In 1988, the United States was embroiled in the War on Drugs in the midst of a crack epidemic prompting drive-by shootings that were growing out of control.
This article was first published in the January 2012 issue of Carnegie Mellon Today.
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