Monday, June 26, 2017

Building rockets in academia - big goals from individual projects

SpaceX just launched and landed another two rockets over the weekend. I don’t get tired of watching those images of re-entry and landing. The precision is mesmerizing and extremely inspiring. Leading a research group in academia I often look at research intensive companies and wonder about the differences and similarities between how research is done in both. I have never worked in such a company environment so these thoughts are certainly from the perspective of academia. 

The big goals and peripheral bets  

From reading about big tech companies and start-ups I can relate to how they appear to organize their product portfolio into a small number of main goals – their core product(s) – while at the same time experimenting with peripheral goals/products. Tesla started as a car company but may end up being a large battery company with small side of car manufacturing. As another example, most major tech companies are today experimenting with virtual reality. In these experiments, those involved face similar questions about uncertain outcomes and timeliness of their steps as we do in academia. One of the thrills in academia is that leap into the unknown where it is crucial to ask the right question just at the right time. The speed of progress in research can be very uneven with times spent floundering in the dark and times where you just happen to walk in the right direction and find big riches. Sometimes those explorations will lead you to unintended directions, away from your core research, where it might be worth moving additional resources. Aiming in the right direction at the right time is a rare skill that a researcher must have but that we don’t spend enough time training for. Also, the balance between focusing on the core and exploring other areas of interest is difficult to set. In academia it seems easier to obtain funding to keep working on your core than to move to new areas. I wonder how companies deal with these issues. I am extremely thankful to be working in a research institute where I get core funding that, although I have to justify, I get to use to explore ideas outside the core of what we do. Such flexibility could be a bigger part of how research funding gets distributed.

Individualized contributions to group goals

While setting a big goal and exploring peripheral objectives might have a lot in common between academia and companies, there is one aspect of how we work that appears very different. In setting the big overarching questions we have to accommodate the fact that each individual group member will have to stand out. PhD students are working on their theses and postdocs are building the work on which they will stand as future group leaders. Each project has to brilliantly stand on its own while simultaneously fitting together with other group projects, contributing to an even greater goal. As each research project can be an unpredictable grasp in the dark, as a group leader I feel like I have to be build an alluring house of cards. Projecting how several research projects might move forward and create an illusionary image of how they fit together to solve THE big question. Not only will we build the rocket that will save mankind but every single contribution from each team member has to solve an important problem. It is obvious that the overarching goal will have to shift with time as some projects move to their potential unintended outcomes. In the context of being flexible to follow peripheral bets, maintaining the big picture goal may be challenging. I would not be the first to propose more career tracks in academia where professional researchers don’t have to move into management roles to keep working in academic science. It would be interesting to try it out on some research institutions to see the effect it would have on how research agendas would be organized.