Monday, May 06, 2013

‘Speed Dating’ For Blue Sky Research

My previous post, “On An Unnamed Institution to Commercialize Research”, was a fairly short and skeptical piece on a proposed government initiative.  Below, inspired by some recent reading, is a more constructive take on a related issue.

A recent article in the National Post brought my attention to a new book by eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson.  Wilson’s book, Letters to a Young Scientist, made the news because of his controversial view that budding scientists do not need to acquire advanced mathematical training.  He writes, “Many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate.”

Intrigued, I purchased a copy of Wilson’s book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Wilson’s passion for science is infectious and inspiring, even to someone like myself who has been in the business for over a quarter of a century.  With our federal government frequently accused of being engaged in a war against science, and with our provincial government making large cuts to funds for postsecondary education, inspiration is in short supply, so I am very appreciative of Wilson’s letters.  His book also provides an interesting perspective on some of the issues currently facing Alberta postsecondary education.

Consider a recent announcement by the minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education about a planned institute for commercializing research.  Apparently, one of the goals of this institute is to foster cooperation amongst researchers at different Albertan schools.  The Edmonton Journal reports, “The institute will provide a forum where academics from different campus can come together. Currently, cooperation is limited because campuses compete for research grants.”  I wonder, though, whether this is the kind of cooperation best suited to increase applied research.  Inspired by Wilson’s book, a different (and possibly less expensive) type of cooperation comes to my mind.

Wilson argues that pure mathematicians develop theorems and models that are elegant in their own right.  However, he feels that mathematicians do not ground their work in real world phenomena.  Wilson is a proponent of such grounding; he counsels young scientists to seek out mathematicians, and to provide them real-world scenarios for linking to extant mathematics.  Wilson states his ‘first principle’ about the relationship between scientists and mathematicians:  “It is far easier for scientists to acquire needed collaboration from mathematicians and statisticians than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists to make use of their equations.”

It seems to me that a modified version of Wilson’s first principle has broader scope.  Mathematics should not be singled out; a more fruitful principle would consider the relationship between pure research (often called ‘blue sky research’ in Albertan discussions) and applied research or commercialized research.  A broader principle suggests a route for connecting companies and blue sky researchers: “It is far easier for companies to acquire needed collaboration from blue sky researchers than it is for blue sky researchers to find companies to make use of their theories.” 

I do blue sky research; I am quite adept at producing pure research related to a diversity of domains.   I also sympathize with the goal of applying my work.  However, I do not believe that this is hindered because I have no other scientists to cooperate with, as is suggested by the nature of the planned institute.   Wilson’s view is that science is an individual affair.  The most innovative scientists of Wilson’s experience “prefer to take first steps alone.”  I agree.

Instead, my problem is that I am completely naïve about the nature of potential applications for my work.  I do not need other scientists.  I need companies, to inform me about their applied problems, in the hope that I might see a potential solution in the blue sky research that I already do.

How might applied problems come my way?  One model might be a think tank the Santa Fe Institute, which Wilson has experienced:  “The idea in these places is to feed and house very smart people and let them wander about, meet in small groups over coffee and croissants, and bounce ideas off each other.”  Perhaps the planned Alberta institute will be a think tank like this.

A cheaper, more efficient model does not require the creation of a think tank or an institute.  Instead, it simply involves organizing a meeting or a short convention.  I imagine a simple gathering involving a diversity of company representatives and a diversity of blue sky researchers.  For a short interval – no more than five minutes -- a company representative interacts with a researcher, seeking common ground.  The former could pitch a problem, while the latter could pitch a methodology.  When the interval is over, the process begins again involving new pairings of people.  Think of it as a kind of speed dating for blue sky research.

The diversity of those involved in this ‘speed dating’ is critical.  Imagine a company that has some sort of heavy industry pattern recognition problem to solve, and imagine further that they are seeking university researchers to help deal with it.  Perhaps they have already used the internet to identify potential candidates, possibly by scanning ‘people’ listings for various faculties and departments on the University of Alberta website.

My suspicion is that one name that they would not come up with is mine.  What could a member of a psychology department, who is furthermore in the Faculty of Arts, and whose expertise is in ‘foundations of cognitive science’ possibly have to offer them?

If they encountered me in the ‘speed dating’ scenario, then I think they would be surprised.  They would find out that I have lots of pattern recognition expertise, that I have invented a new kind of artificial neural network, that I am currently exploring the relation between probability theory and classification, that I have some expertise in robotics, that I have lots of experience with multivariate statistics, … I could put a lot in my quick ‘speed dating’ pitch!  To their surprise, they might find that an Arts psychologist has the expertise to solve their heavy duty problem.  And, of course, I would have discovered a potential application for my blue sky research, which might be commercialized using existing mechanisms at my university.

The key point to the ‘speed dating’ idea is that I am not alone.  Most of my colleagues, across the various departments and faculties at Albertan universities, have amassed large degrees of expertise that could have economic applications, provided their blue sky work were to be matched with promising applied problems.  Companies might be surprised at what they find when they explore blue sky research conducted in areas that they would ordinarily ignore.

 We – companies and blue sky researchers alike -- need to increase the likelihood that such matches occur.  We need to explore avenues that are unconventional, another message central to Wilson’s book.

When Claude Shannon provided mathematical accounts of circuits, he did not revolutionize electric engineering because he linked his work with that of other engineers.  He succeeded by connecting problems with electric circuit design to something that he learned about in his philosophy courses – Boole’s logic.  In making this strange connection, Shannon was less than conventional, and illustrated another of Wilson’s principles: “March away from the sound of the guns.  Observe the fray from a distance, and while you are at it, consider making your own fray.”


Below is a link to information about E.O. Wilson's latest book on

Wilson, Edward O. (2013) Letters To A Young Scientist. Livestrong Publishing, New York.

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