Software Musings

Re: Searching for Research

Posted on: 11/11/2006

Sitting here a moment ago putting the finishing touches to a paper on Failure Semantics (computer program failures, not human failures (for which see James Reason)) for a conference in the Spring, I was mentally comparing my lot with that of the academics whom I know and with whom I work. Working for Nortel, publication of any type has, until recently, been discouraged. In fact, in my latest book I was not allowed to say that I worked for Nortel, just that I worked “for a large telecommunications company”.

Under Nortel’s new CTO this is changing and publication seems to be an encouraged activity again, albeit one hampered by an approvals process requiring sign-off by various managers and a company lawyer, presumably, in this case, one conversant with failure.

But this seems to contrast with the academic world where publication of papers, even a rehash of a previous paper, seems to be encouraged. I have on several occasions approached academics with Nortel’s money in my pocket, looking to fund a particular study, only to be turned down because it wouldn’t be possible to “get a good paper out of that” or because “that is really difficult”. I’ve also been turned down when looking for help with something that was likely to produce a negative result—it appears that Albert Michelson and Edward Morley wouldn’t even get a paper published today, let alone a Nobel prize.

How have we managed to build an academia which prizes papers over ideas, positive results over negative ones and a dull, incremental result over a failed Herculean effort? Thomas Kuhn would probably have argued that this was ever thus as long as one paradigm held sway. Michelson and Morley broke a paradigm so we remember them. The tens of thousands of other scientists who presumably published papers entitled “Another Small Wrinkle in the Idea I had when I did my PhD 15 Years Ago” are forgotten.

Hamming’s wonderful essay, You and Your Research, is timeless and says a lot, particularly about the relationship between industry and academia. As he says:

Our society frowns on people who set out to do really good work. You’re not supposed to; luck is supposed to descend on you and you do great things by chance. Well, that’s a kind of dumb thing to say. I say, why shouldn’t you set out to do something significant. You don’t have to tell other people, but shouldn’t you say to yourself, “Yes, I would like to do something significant.”?

I can’t talk of course. I don’t work in academia and shouldn’t throw stones. And there are academics with whom I interact who are willing to break the mould but I get the feeling that they allow themselves this freedom having written off significant advancement in the university world.

Teaching is a noble profession. Research is a noble profession. It seems odd that we should have combined the two and asked one set of people to do both. Rather like asking airline pilots to do nursing in their spare time. Perhaps this is where the research department in a large technology company can triumph, given the executive will. Particularly as, without publications, there is no issue with Hamming’s dictum “When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems.”


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November 2006
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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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