France excels at R&D, but Academia is overdue for disruption

Innovation

Resident PHD- holder Regis Behmo explores the idea that, while R&D is constantly paving the way for new inventions, startups, and advancements, it seems that Academia itself could use a little disruption.

You can follow Regis Behmo on twitter at @RegisB
Last November I attended the International Conference on Computer Vision (ICCV), the most prestigious scientific conference in the field, with more than 1500 participants, and  330 accepted papers, which very often redefine the state of the art of a specific application and open up novel research opportunities. The conference lasts for a little more than a week and for computer vision geeks, it’s paradise.
You would think the social networks would be abuzz with comments on every presentation. I expected speakers to respond to questions asked online. There would be controversies and back-and-forth arguments on whether a particular research work was deemed innovative enough to be presented. I thought people would talk about their idea to improve on other’s work. There would be live tweets, long Google+ comments and insightful blog posts.

There were not.

In one week, I counted a grand total of fifty-four tweets related to the conference, fifteen of which by myself. The same observations were made at other famous conferences. Scientists don’t tweet. I read about twenty blog posts a day, and less than one good computer vision-related blog post per week. Scientists don’t blog. I have 327 LinkedIn relations, less than a dozen of them are tenured researchers. Go and try to find David Lowe (inventor of SIFT), Jitendra Malik (Stanford teacher and Computer Vision rock star) or Andrew Ng (Stanford teacher, startup founder and machine learning idol) on your favorite social networks. You will either fail or be disappointed. Scientists don’t network on the web. At least there are Wikipedia pages about them.

Are scientists just uncool geeks?

The social network revolution has surpassed academia without so much as a wave; but this is also true for the other two revolutions that rocked the Web in the past ten years: remember Web 2.0? the wisdom of the crowds and collaborative editing? That didn’t happen, not in Science. What about the move to the Cloud? When I mention Hadoop to a researcher, he says “bless you”. Why is any of this important at all? Because startups have an opportunity to have a significant, positive impact on the way Science, and thus our world, move forward. The age-old peer-reviewing system can be improved by taking into account comments from other, more diversified sources, such as a crowd. Researchers don’t need the opinion of a reviewing committee on whether a paper should be published or not. The $1000 price tag of scientific conferences could be challenged. It is possible to shrink the market while addressing a wider audience.

“Those who have made money in Science, please step forward”

Success stories of startups with customers in the academia are scarce. Mendeley, the article sharing-based community is a notable exception. This lack of interest can probably be tracked back to the fact that business and engineering people know very little about the many worlds of research. Take the above example of cloud computing: research labs do not buy CPU time on Amazon EC2. Instead they buy large computing clusters or GPU farms. These machines will become obsolete after a couple years of use at 10% of their maximum capacity. They are loaded with unpractical software. Grad students don’t have a clue how to administer a cluster. Research teams have to share the cluster and schedule their experiments ahead of time. So why don’t they rent computing instances in the cloud instead? Every researcher I have talked to about this issue has given me the same answer: computing capacity rental is hard to justify on a yearly financial report. Surely, there must be a simple solution to this problem, right?
France’s research institutions are less rigid than we tend to think. The organization of the INRIA(Inventors for the Digital World) revolves around small project teams. The laboratories in the Grandes Ecoles are open to new work methodologies. Grad students have a lot of freedom to decide which tools and methodologies they should be using. Such a market segmentation looks like the perfect starting ground for a lean startup.

7 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Guillaume Khayat

    Great article but since the article does not really go into how France excels at R&D, I’d change the title

    • Avatar
      Ataraxo

       Same comment; I don’t see what supports the idea that France excels at R&D. And using the spending in R&D in France would be a bad idea since the tax system creates an incentive for companies to tag everything as R&D so as to save money.

  2. Avatar
    Andrei Bursuc

    Great post 🙂 
    Building up on the title of your post, I would say that French academia is lagging even more behind on external communication. Even though there is lots of great work done in French schools and research organizations, little time is devoted to disseminate better this work and put in value. In the field of computer vision, you will find only a handful of scientists involved in international committees of scientific networks, missing thus an opportunity to have an influence over international research and to bring up some high quality ideas and results. Ironically, these scientists are very active within French organizations, but hardly arrive to cross the national borders.Also I noticed that there are almost no spin-offs coming from the academia in France. My guess is that schools are already buried in a complicated intelectual property management system and it becomes almost impossible to take away some scientific ideas from school and use it in a start-up.
    Lately an increased number of research projects have been trying to stimulate cooperation between schools and SMEs, so there is some hope of pushing R&D further into industry sooner 🙂
    Yet, many partners in these projects find themselves in the same project, just for the sake of obtaining funds and don’t always blend very naturally in their work. Again these projects should benefit from a more international perspective and should be born more naturally as there is a clear dependence of knowledge between schools and industry, and not just with the aim of fetching some funds.
    Are you planning to go to ECCV this year?
    Cheers!    

  3. Avatar
    Richard Price

    Great post. I agree entirely that scientific communication could be a lot better. There is a huge opportunity here. I wrote a guest post on TechCrunch the other day about this called “The Future of Science” http://techcrunch.com/2012/04/29/the-future-of-science. 
    You’re right that the main issue is that Silicon Valley isn’t aware enough of some of the huge inefficiencies in science. The answer is to write more blog posts like these, and evangelize those problems, so that people realize they are there, start working on solving them.
    Richard Price, CEO, Academia.edu

  4. Avatar
    Andy Terrel

    Thanks for the laugh.  Saying that no one makes money in science as never seen a science research budget. Just cause Scientists don’t have the time to waste on social media doesn’t mean there isn’t money there.

  5. Avatar
    Thibauld

    Very interesting opinion! I thought I’d share it with my girlfriend who is a scientist (in applied mathematics too) to see what she would answer to that. And here’s her *raw* answer! I thought it might contribute to the debate:
    “Oh..hehe… ($Coolnes neq Twitting$) This debate has been going since a couple of years. In a nutshell I’d say that before start debating, we first must ¨divide and conquer¨ and ask ourselves the WHY’s of immersing ourselves in the internet media world: Refereeing our work? Disseminating knowledge? Allowing an interaction between Academia and industry (including startups as the blogger wants to imply)? The blogger of this small opinion does not make any distinction which then fails to be make a strong argument for either community, scientists or non scientists.
    In the sense of referring or endorsing our work, I do not think the validity or value of research should be subjected to the ¨general approval of the crowds¨. It is similar to the reason why startups select carefully who will be part of their board meetings (and they get paid while peer reviewers are solely scientific community efforts). You will be enriched by getting an after hand feedback but not while in the process necessarily. In our case, conferences, seminars etc. are our ways to do ¨social interaction¨and gain further feedback, in the process of building.As far as academia and industry interactions, I think many startups are raising and literally living from their interactions with academia and research institutions, but indeed there are problems to get funded to pay private industry to do the job… in that sense a combination of collaboration tend to be the way to handle things. So it is rather the problem of lack of interaction might be lying rather in the general system of research funding, the nature of the research. Competent startups know well who their potential clients are and what they do because they themselves have something to do with science, so I am not sure twitting will be the solving point.Dissemination of science, is absolutely relevant, that I do not question at all and in that sense I completely agree that internet should be more exploited in any of its forms. On the side of educating or allowing science to be as transparent as possible (with ethical issues kept in mind, of course) to tax payers from where a lot research is funded is a must. Additionally to take advantage of different forums to reach people to understand the importance of a given research topic that might be found controversial or misunderstood are important if scientists seek to get support…”

  6. Avatar
    Marianne Corvellec

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