Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Posthumous Rebutal

A recently published piece by Isaac Asimov titled On Creativity partially rebuts my previous post. Here's a key excerpt:
To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either.
I agree with all of Azimov's essay. It resonates truth according to my experience, e.g., I'm most productive collaborating with people in front of whom I am not afraid to look stupid.

So how to square this with the reality that research is funded by people who care, to some degree, about ``return on investment''?

I'm not entirely sure, but I'll make a pop culture analogy. I'm currently enjoying the series The Knick, which is about the practice of medicine in the early part of the 20th century. In the opening scene, the doctors demonstrate an operation in a teaching operating theatre, using the scholarly terminology and methods of the time. The patient dies, as all patients did at that time, because the mortality rate of placenta previa surgery at the time was 100%. Over time procedures improved and mortality rates are very low now, but at the time, doctors just didn't know what they were doing. The scholarly attitude was one way of signalling ``we are trying our best, and we are striving to improve''.

We still don't know how to reliably produce ``return on investment'' from industrial research. Azimov's point is that many mechanisms proposed to make research more productive actually do the opposite. Thus, the way forward is unclear. The best idea I have at the moment is just to conduct myself professionally and look for opportunities to provide value to my employer, while at the same time pushing in directions that I think are interesting and which can plausibly positively impact the business within a reasonable time frame. Machine learning is highly practical at this particular moment so this is not terribly difficult, but this balancing act will be much tougher for researchers in other areas.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Costs and Benefits

tl;dr: If you love research, and you are a professional researcher, you have a moral obligation to make sure your benefactor both receives some benefit from your research and is aware of the benefit.

I love research. Great research is beautiful in at least two ways. First, it reveals truths about the world we live in. Second, it exhibits the inherent beauty of peak human performance. A great researcher is beautiful in the same way a great artist or athlete is beautiful. (Noah Smith apparently agrees.) Unfortunately, a half million people will not pay for tickets to watch great researchers perform their craft, so other funding vehicles are required.

Recent events have me thinking again about the viability of privately funded basic research. In my opinion, the history of Xerox PARC is deeply troubling. What?! At it's peak the output of Xerox PARC was breathtaking, and many advances in computation that became widespread during my youth can be traced to Xerox PARC. Unfortunately, Xerox did not benefit from some of the most world-changing innovations of their R&D department. Now a generation of MBAs are told about the Cisco model, where instead of having your own research department, you wait for other firms to innovate and then buy them.
... it continues to buy small, innovative firms rather than develop new technology from scratch ...
To be clear my employer, Microsoft, still shows a strong commitment to basic research. Furthermore, recent research layoffs at Microsoft were not related to research quality, or to the impact of that research on Microsoft products. This post is not about Microsoft, it is about the inexorable power of incentives and economics.

Quite simply, it is irrational to expect any institution to fund an activity unless that organization can realize sufficient benefit to cover the costs. That calculation is ultimately made by people, and if those people only hear stories about how basic research generates benefits to other firms (or even, competitors!), appetite will diminish. In other words, benefits must not only be real, they must be recognizable to decision makers. This is, of course, a deep challenge, because the benefits of research are often not recognizable to the researchers who perform it. Researchers are compelled to research by their nature, like those who feel the need to scale Mount Everest. It so happens that a byproduct of their research obsession is the advancement of humanity.

So, if you are a professional researcher, it follows logically that as part of your passion for science and the advancement of humanity, you should strive to make the benefits of your activity salient to whatever institutions support you, because you want your funding vehicle to be long-term viable. Furthermore, let us recognize some great people: the managers of research departments who constantly advocate for budget in the boardroom, so that the people in their departments can do great work.