Being a Nice Researcher and the Real World: pure, applied, and industrial research

This morning, I am deeply upset. Some of you who know me will know why. No, I don’t care so much that Buch was elected, though it does puzzle me. Read through, you might find out why I’m upset.

I did my Ph.D. with the intent of getting into “industrial research”. Yes, there are different types of research. You have “pure” research where people have no idea why they do the research except that it looks nice. For example, solving for all algebra having property X is pure research. You have “applied” research which is often closely related to “pure” research except that the topic is a bit closer to “real world” concerns. For example, finding a new way to solve Navier-Stokes equations is applied research. It should be noted that “applied” research doesn’t equate with “useful in the real world” research. In fact, it could very well be that some “pure” research is more applicable in the real world. Finally, you have “industrial” research. Industrial research is meant to be useful in the real world. It is the primary purpose of such research. The excitement comes not from elegance alone, but mostly by solving real problems people have. You might say that some people working on the linux kernel are industrial researchers, at least when they innovate. A given researcher may cover all three research types, but he may switch hat depending on the project he is working on.

All types of research are equally worthy, but they are not equal in all things. For example, “pure” research might give you a lot of prestige is some universities. Pure researchers have “pure” concerns and it is often thought that only the smarter researchers can be pure researchers. Applied researcher have often an edge when it comes time to get some research funding. That’s because the applied researcher can easily justify that his work might be applicable in the real world. Finally, the industrial researcher might be looked down upon by some people: because industrial research must be tied closely to the real world, it will sometimes trade fashion or elegance for convenience or applicability. Often, “industrial” research may appear to be simpler, maybe easier. Believe me, it is not easier. On the other hand, the “industrial” researcher can really license technology or even start a company. This, in turn, may bring tremendous leverage to such a researcher. Unfortunately, these things take time, and in a university setting where tenure should be first on your mind, the industrial researcher might have a harder time. Hence, in many schools, most professors are pure or applied researchers. Fortunately, the industrial researcher has a broader choice of employment.

This is actually a very interesting topic. Many questions may come to mind… For example, is there any such thing as industrial research in mathematics? You bet! See SIAM.

Now, that you see what I mean by an industrial researcher, you might understand that one of his strength is when dealing with companies. He is able to understand the concerns of their engineers and his research accounted for many of these concerns already. However, for him, it is crucial that people do not get in the way between him and a company. He needs, he wants technology transfert.

That’s why I’m upset today: I feel someone pushed me aside and got in the way. People are always eager to take someone else’s work and then ignore this person when money is involved and the author is not being difficult. I hope this will get fixed, but either way, I’ve been reminded that the industrial researcher must keep a very close eye and much control on the technology transfert process. And not be nice.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

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