Philosopher Barry Smith Receives $2 Million Research Award

German prize believed to be largest ever given to a philosopher

Release Date: November 2, 2001

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Barry Smith, Ph.D., Julian Park Professor of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo, has received a $2 million Wolfgang Paul Award from Germany's Humboldt Foundation.

The award is the most valuable ever in the academic history of Germany. It also is believed to be the largest single prize ever awarded to a philosopher.

Of the 70 candidates nominated by German academic institutions, 14 top-ranking international scholars and scientists have been selected to share the total sum of more than $23 million that has been set aside by the German government for the Wolfgang Paul Program. Smith will receive the largest single amount.

UB Provost Elizabeth D. Capaldi said the university "is very proud of Dr. Smith's accomplishment in receiving this award.

"The tremendous prestige of the award," she added, "reflects the depth of the international regard in which his work is held."

The bulk of Smith's award -- the largest among the 14 recipients, eight of whom are from the United States -- will fund his ongoing series of pioneering studies designed to show that philosophical methods and theories can be applied to information science.

The award will be presented to Smith and the other recipients by Edelgard Bulmahn, Germany's federal minister for education and research, at a ceremony in Berlin on Nov. 6.

In addition to the monetary award, Smith and the other winners will have the opportunity to conduct research for three years at a German academic institution. In Smith's case, the host institution will be the University of Leipzig, where an interdisciplinary team of researchers will work under his guidance. They will collaborate with researchers at UB in a newly founded Buffalo-Leipzig Institute for Formal Ontology and Medical Information Science.

Smith will continue to teach at UB, but will take a leave of absence during the 2003-04 academic year to work in Leipzig, and will spend his vacations there as well.

Smith's research project in Leipzig will serve to establish the future-oriented field of "formal ontology in information systems." It involves the university's departments of philosophy, medicine and information science, as well as the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience.

The project addresses a major problem confronting information science today, which is that it must employ a large number of modeling methods and conceptual categories that lack a unifying foundation. As a result, databases and terminological standards show a very low degree of compatibility and cannot be re-used even for similar areas of application.

The goal of Smith's research is to develop a powerful general ontology, i.e., a semantically sound taxonomical and lexical framework, for overcoming such problems in reusability and coherence. The main testbed for this general ontology will be in the development of standards for clinical trials on which Smith will collaborate with a team at the University of Leipzig led by Barbara Heller, working on cross-linguistic medical standardization projects sponsored by the European Union.

Smith recently has helped establish an emerging specialization in ontology and information science in UB's master's-degree program in philosophy. It will help train ontologists needed by private industry, governments, non-profit organizations and other institutions to develop and manage large databases and directories. These individuals will model and analyze complex structures and processes, and build systems for data and enterprise integration in a variety of fields.

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is a non-profit foundation established in 1953 by the Federal Republic of Germany for the promotion of international research cooperation. It enables highly qualified scholars to spend extended periods of research in Germany and promotes ensuing academic contacts.

Smith studied at Oxford University and received his doctorate from the University of Manchester, England. He has worked at the University of Sheffield, the University of Manchester, and the International Academy of Philosophy (Liechtenstein). Since 1993 he has been a professor of philosophy at UB, where he also is affiliated with the National Center for Geographic Information Science and the Cognitive Science Center.

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