About the Director

Robert Levin

Robert Levin is Director and Fellow of the Work Science Institute. 

For the past thirty years, in both research and practice, Robert Levin has explored the nature of work—in humans and in other living systems—in a wide range of settings and from the perspectives of disparate disciplines.  These settings have ranged from collaborative research on how energetic constraints and trade-offs affect decision-making in humans—and in microbes; to developing innovative approaches to improving the work of cross-disciplinary research groups at universities and in industry; to developing and implementing programs that provide science training to coaches of Olympic sports. 

What unites these are two goals:

  • From a curiosity-driven perspective, Levin’s passion is understanding the phenomena of “work” broadly and richly: Work can only be understood effectively from the perspective of disparate disciplines: from cellular and evolutionary physiology to neuroscience and applied psychology and to engineering and operations research—and likewise from the perspective of disparate organisms and living systems—not humans only and not by viewing human work and human workers as disembodied brains.

  • From an impact-driven perspective, Levin’s passion is using this broad understanding to improve human work using the insights from many natural science, behavioral science, and engineering domains—not only fields that tradition tells us are relevant.  What all of Levin’s impact-driven solutions have in common is a performance-based approach, stressing the clarity of discovering, learning about, and performing essential tasks, over an outcomes-based approach focused on external goals.  This approach makes complex work manageable under highly competitive conditions, and has done so—from the work of Olympic coaches to the work of interdisciplinary researchers to the work of medical residents, and in many more such settings.
Of Levin’s approach to interdisciplinary research and interdisciplinary groups, one long-term participant in Work Science Institute programs wrote, “His strength is in his willingness and ability to bring together diverse interdisciplinary groups and actually get them to work together to tackle important scientific issues.” 

Levin has authored three books and edited one book, including Work Meets Life: Exploring the Integrative Study of Work in Living Systems (2011, The MIT Press). His current research interests are on energetic and informational constraints on molecular and cellular work processes and their effects on the performance of work and decision-making by organisms--including humans, particularly under environmental stressors.

Two recent examples of Levin’s collaborative, concrete approach, and his role as a catalyst for interactions among researchers working in diverse disciplines, are the Work Meets Life project and Math-Biology collaborative project:
  • In the Work Meets Life project, Levin identified, selected, and brought together a diverse group of scientists and researchers from at the University of Colorado and the University of Cambridge. Two collaborative, small-group working conferences followed, one at each location, which several participants described as the most intense intellectual activity in which they’d engaged. A collaborative effort then developed nine technical, accessible, chapters on specific aspects of work in living systems, actively edited for readability, and published by the MIT Press as Work Meets Life, which has formed the foundation for further collaborations in turn.

  • In the Math-Bio initiative, researchers have been identified across a biology department and a mathematics department at a research university, deliberately from research areas that would not normally connect. The researchers have collaborated in a series of group and individual meetings about their individual specialties. From these, researchers identified (a) specific ways they can help other researchers solve problems across disciplinary lines and (b) ideas and projects to develop for grant proposals and research.

Levin founded the Work Science Institute in 1986, as the Center for Human Function & Work (CHFW) in Champaign, Illinois, and Boulder, Colorado, where CHFW became the first research organization approved for the University of Colorado's Research Park, in 1988. CHFW became WorkScience, LLC, in 2000, and the Work Science Institute in 2015.  In 2000, Levin cofounded the Center for the Integrative Study of Work in Living Systems (CISW), a multidisciplinary research center, with an international membership: He was a Founding Fellow of CISW, and was Co-Director from 2000 to 2003, when he become Director. WorkScience co-hosted CISW from 2000-2003 jointly with the University of Colorado. 

Between 2001 and 2013, Levin was (successively) Visiting Research Fellow, Visiting Researcher, and Visiting Professor at the Department of Zoology and the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour at the University of Cambridge, and continues to work closely with researchers there on the Work Meets Life project.  He has been elected a Visiting Member of Darwin College and a Bye Fellow and a Senior Member of Robinson College at the University of Cambridge, and as a Fellow and a Life Fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society.

Levin's interests in the biological aspects of work and performance developed from a range of work experience: Prior to CHFW, in which he spent 14 years developing and applying university research from life sciences and social sciences to critical problems in organizations, businesses, and universities, Levin served as the National Director of the American Coaching Effectiveness Program, the leading sport medicine and science education program in the United States for Olympic and youth sport organizations, and worked earlier at positions ranging from divisional development director of an Olympic National Governing Body to firefighter and fire crew foreman in the US Forest Service.