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When am I going to get my money back?

August 13, 2011

Sam Palmisano recently gave a talk at IBM Research’s Almaden lab. One of the questions that Sam got asked was whether he was supportive of basic research. I found Sam’s answer very interesting. He replied, in essence, that he believed in basic research, but that as CEO his concern was what he was getting for his investment. “Ok, I’ll give you $20 million for this long term research project. But I want to know, when am I going to get my money back?”

I found Sam’s answer interesting because there seems to be an unfortunate trend among some researchers to assume that they are somehow owed (by society, their company, whoever) funding for their activities just because they somehow fall under the banner of “scientific inquiry”. Science is absolutely a worthwhile activity. However, just because science is worthwhile does not mean that society should be writing a blank check for any scientific activity.

I think academia is partly to blame for this attitude. Academic research is essentially its own little industry that turns funding from various organizations into papers. At some point along the line, too much of measuring impact and contributions in academic research turned into paper counting rather than considering actual impact on society. While from a scientific perspective publishing papers is laudable (“We’re advancing the knowledge of mankind!”), as a return on investment I’m unconvinced that it merits the resources expended. To its credit I think that the NSF has the same impression, since they seem to be exploring mechanisms for getting a better return on their investments.

I think industrial research does a better job at providing value, because companies are for profit entities that at the end of the day exist to provide value to their shareholders. If a company’s research investments don’t generate sufficient value, somewhere along the line the company’s officers and shareholders are going to start questioning the return on those investments.

I would argue that the challenge for industrial researchers is to balance their scientific inquiries (advancing the state of the art) against the needs of the company they work for. This challenge is not helped by the attitude among some people, which I frankly do not understand, who argue that research efforts targeted at a company’s needs are merely “advanced development”. However, the last time I checked, a good definition of research was:

RE·SEARCH: NOUN: 1. a detailed study of a subject, especially in order to discover (new) information or reach a (new) understanding.

That definition doesn’t say anything about publishing papers in academic conferences; that’s one outcome of some research activities, but it’s not the definition of research. Frankly, the definition doesn’t say anything about needing a PhD or working in a research lab either, and I would argue that there are companies who better research than many universities without a bunch of PhDs or labs. So I don’t think there’s nearly as strong a division between “research” and “development” as some seem to think, and I don’t think researchers are doing themselves any favors by trying to draw strict divisions between what is and is not research.

At a time when research budgets look to continue declining due to economic circumstances, I think researchers should take the opportunity to re-examine the problems that they tackle and that value that they provide to society. We certainly have no shortage of problems that require solutions. But we may have enough academic publications that exist primarily to add to publication counts and pad out CVs. Perhaps we should all be considering the investments we have received in our training and for our past and current research projects and ask ourselves whether our funders have received their money back. And if they haven’t yet, when they will.

From → Musings, Research

  1. I like this piece, especially the part about the border between research and development being pretty arbitrary. Most often it’s simply a matter of spin. And I agree that people in academia would do well to think about the taxpayers’ return on investment more often. But on the other hand, the “money back” criterion only goes so far. For example, in the long run research is the only thing that’s going to get the human race off of the rock, with its dwindling natural resources. When do you get your money back from that? In a more limited scope.

    • Jeff permalink

      Agreed. In the industrial research realm, return on value largely (but not always) equals $. But when society is funding research, there are others types of possible returns on the investment besides $.

  2. Oops, meant to delete the last sentence before posting.

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  1. A point made more cogently than I’ve ever seen before - Manas Tungare

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