Working with industry helps researchers?

Is it a good idea for an academic researcher to work with industry R&D projects? Yes, in small doses:

We find that university-industry relations exercise a positive effect on university scientific productivity only when (…) these activities do not exceed 15% of the researcher’s total budget. (Source)

Thus, spending no more than a few days a month working with partners in industry is good for you. My own policy is that I will serve on advisory boards, but I will not lead a development team.

Some specific types of collaborations I have done as an academic researcher:

  • I worked on an ISO committee. I could not stand it. Trying to parse hundreds of pages of technical documentation is boring. The noise-to-signal ratio is very high.
  • With Sean McGrath and NRC, we licensed to Bell Canada. This was a good experience because Sean is an excellent engineer. Research-wise it was helpful to build a collaborative filtering algorithm for actual users.
  • I have served on several advisory boards. In a sense, it is ideal because it uses very little time and everyone tends to win.
  • I got a few contracts as a consultant. This made no sense to me and so I stopped doing it last winter. My time is extremely valuable, so selling much of it is not interesting. Yet, clients need someone who will commit large chunks of time eventually. Moreover, clients need someone who will pick up the phone and fix problems when they need it, not when you are available.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

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

8 thoughts on “Working with industry helps researchers?”

  1. I also found working on ISO committees quite mind-numbing – BUT, it does give you insights into how things like programming languages are designed by committee and how not to do it.

  2. A big issue here is that researchers sometimes need to work with industry to get access to big data. Search logs, for example, are not available from any other source.

    Given that there is evidence that results on small data sets often differ when applied to big data, access to big data may be necessary for the research to maximize its relevance and impact.

  3. @Greg That is a good point: “access to very large data sets” may require industry connections.

    @Daniel Even if you are not trying to optimize “research productivity”, I think most professors make bad consultants.

  4. As a researcher, working with a non-IT orientated company can be very frustrating. Half of your working time is spent on communicating with your co-workers, who have basically no idea about what you are doing. In the other half of your working time, you are mostly writing the documentation that has to start from “Click Start Button”. Speaking from my personal experience, of course.

  5. In my view as an industry guy, a small dose of exposure to industry–whether formal or informal–is a nice way for researchers to calibrate their assumptions about the applicability of their work. And yes, there’s always issue of access to data.

    But I agree that you rapidly reach the point of diminishing return if your goal is to optimize for research productivity. At some point, you become an employee of a company whose goal isn’t to produce research.

  6. I thought you were asking what’s in it for the professors, rather than for the companies. 🙂

    That said, there are companies who perceive a benefit from association with prestigious professors (or their institutions), even if they gain little else from the consulting arrangement.

  7. Working with people who have no idea what you are doing is generally a recipe for disaster. As for research and industry, I’ve seen this from both sides. As the other Daniel says, most professors make bad consultants; conversely, many companies–even technology companies–are clueless about the API to the research community.

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