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Unappreciated bubble research

Every now and again an academic journal dedicates a single issue to one topic. I laughed when I saw the topic of an upcoming special issue on “Enhancing Credibility of Empirical Software Engineering”.

If you work in industry, you probably have a completely different interpretation of the intent of this issue, compared to somebody working in academia, i.e., you think the topic is about getting academic researchers to work on stuff of interest to industry. In academia the issue is about getting industry to treat the research work being done in universities as relevant to their needs, i.e., industry just does not appreciate how useful the work being done in universities is to solving real world problems.

Yes fellow industrialists, the credibility problem is all down to us not appreciating the work of those hard-working academics (I was once at a university meeting and the Dean referred to the industrialists at the meeting, which confused me because I did not know any were present; sometime later the penny dropped and I realised he was talking abut me and another guy who was working in industry).

The real problem is that most research academics have little idea what goes on in industry and what research results might be of interest to industry. This is not surprising given that the academic career ladder keeps people within the confines of the university bubble.

I regularly have academics express surprise that somebody in industry, i.e., me, knows about this-that-or-the-other. This baffled me for a while, until I realised that many academics really do regard people working in industry as simpletons; I now reply that its because I paid more for my degree and did not have the usual labotomy before graduating. Now they are baffled.

The solution to the problem of industrial research relevance is for academics to be willing to move outside the university bubble, to go out and interact with people in industry. However, there are powerful incentives pushing academics away from talking to industry:

  • academic performance is measured by papers published and the chances of getting a paper published are improved if it involves a fashionable topic (yes fellow industrialists, academics suffer from this problem too). Stuff that industry is interested in is not fashionable, at least not yet. I don’t see many researchers being willing to risk working on very unfashionable topics in the hope that their work might get published,
  • contact with industry will open the eyes of many academics to the interesting work being done there and the much higher paying jobs available (at least for those who are any good). Heads’ of department don’t want to lose their good people and have every incentive to discourage researchers having any contact with industry. The senior staff are sufficiently embedded in the system that they can be trusted to talk to industry, rather like senior communist party members being allowed to visit the West during the cold war.

An alternative way for academic research to connect with industry is for the research to be done by people with a lot of industry experience. There are a surprising number of people working in industry who are bored and are contemplating doing a PhD for something interesting to do (e.g., a public proclamation).

Again there are powerful incentives pushing against industry contact. PhD students do the academic grunt work and so compliant people are needed, i.e., recent graduates who will accept that this is how things work, not independent people who know better (such as those with a decent amount of industry experience). Worries about industrialists not being willing to tow-the-line with respect to departmental thinking are probably groundless, plenty of this sort of thing goes on in industry.

I found out at the weekend that only one central London university offers a computing related part-time PhD program (Birkbeck; few people can afford to a significant drop in income); part-time students are not around to do the grunt work.

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