Monday, June 21, 2021

Industrial Research

Previous related posts: Career Networking, Scholarly Publications.

With the industrial revolution, large companies introduced central research laboratories to accelerate the invention of new products. After the Sputnik crisis, in the USA these laboratories became very prestigious, under the influence of people like Joseph Licklider. The labs flourished, receiving government jobs paid under the cost-plus model, where the paid price was the cost of producing the technology plus a margin for the company's profit.

After receiving their Ph.D., young researchers would join learned societies in their field and attend their annual meetings to stay current in the field and to network. They would join a prestigious central lab with the plan to work there until retirement. With the pressure for excellence, there were always personal frictions, but they were offset by the companionship and respect researchers had for each other.

In research, the hierarchies are relatively flat. The organizations were very flexible, and researchers moved around in the lab and formed robust networks. They would attend the annual meetings of their societies and present their progress: their network was not only dense but also vast. By subscribing to the same journals, there was a shared knowledge of the state of the art.

At the end of the Cold War, the central labs rapidly disappeared. The government no longer had the need to outbrain the Russians, companies put more emphasis on quarterly results instead of long term success, therefore executives had less understanding for research. The universities adapted and started programs to teach students to become entrepreneurs. All this contributed to the central labs to disappear in a very short time.

At first, one would think that industrial research has completely disappeared. However, this is not the case, and today there are more researchers than during the Cold War. But the research infrastructure has radically changed. For example, professors no longer spend occasional time in industrial central labs as visiting scientists, but have more secure part-time positions in large companies, with job titles like Fellow.

Typically, a larger technology company has a VP of research with numerous researchers. The latter no longer sit in a central location but are dispersed throughout the engineering divisions. On one side, this allows them to glean important hard problems with which the engineers are grappling and get inspired for new technologies. On the other side, when engineers get stuck with a problem for which there is no clear solution on Stack Overflow, they can informally ask the local researcher for a lead.

The researchers are not embedded in the development organizations. They report to a remote manager, and they have long term goals instead of the daily Jira tasks. They do not have short term deadlines, but at the end of the day they cannot turn off their brains until the next morning. Today's researchers are much more lonely than the researchers in the central labs of yore.

Today's researchers are less dependent on learned societies and tend to network using LinkedIn. The annual meetings have disappeared and have been replaced by topical meetings. Instead of a steady shower of scientific articles in journals, researchers today do searches on Google Scholar for the knowledge they need at the moment. One of the corollaries is that today papers should no longer have memorable titles, but the titles have to have the important terms at the beginning, so they show up at the top in searches.

This requires learned societies to adapt. Researchers are isolated and change employers more often. Flexible regular meetups are maybe more important than rigid conferences. When in the past societies could solicit sponsorships from central labs, today the researchers are decentralized and there is no longer a budged item for sponsorships. Despite this, anecdotally there is more money for essential expenses and while in the past page charges were a barrier, today they are no longer important and researchers publish in journals with high impact factor, regardless of cost.

There is another important factor in the lives of researchers. Since they are now dispersed, it is more difficult to advance in the career. The Anglo-Saxon countries always had the concept of mentorship instead of the more formal master-apprentice system of other western countries. Other cultures are now copying the mentorship system to help researchers to succeed in life. This is a new role to which learned societies have to pay attention.

As I mentioned, researchers do searches for related art on the web instead of staying current by subscribing to journals. Search engines are based on n-grams and do not know the history of science. Therefore, it is easy to get the related art in the introduction wrong, and especially the references are often wrong. For example, the CIELAB color model operator was not introduced at the INTERACT-2010 conference, but much earlier and no later than 1976.

Thus, editors and reviewers have a much harder job verifying the introduction and the references of a manuscript. This and the current career path of researchers (see post on Career Networking) prompted, for example, the SPIE about 15 years ago to limit the terms of the editors in their journals. Learned societies must give high consideration to mentorship for their journals and conferences. Conference chairs and editors must have a good number of young researchers who work closely with the old hands to learn the ropes. Fortunately this is easy because, as noted earlier, today's researchers are lonely and long for mentors.

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