Every cut has a silver lining

The UK Government has announced cuts of up to 25% which will be imposed on universities over the next 4 years.

I’ve been reading a recent document from IBM called Capitalising on Complexity, which emphasises the importance of innovation and creativity and this has triggered a reflection on the contribution that the computer science research community in universities can make to this. Sadly, the conclusion I’ve come to is “if we can do anything it is in spite of rather than because of existing research structures and management”.

The problems that we suffer from are primarily imposed by the need for research quality to be ‘measured’ – either at the individual level (career progression, tenure, etc.) or at the institutional level. We are all encouraged to publish regularly in ‘high-quality journals or conferences’ and to write research proposals for external research support. More and more people are now competing for very limited funding.

The end-result of this is conservatism and incrementalism. It is dangerous to your career to go into a new area or to think differently as there are no ‘high quality’ journals and conferences to publish in. If you make proposals where you suggest interesting questions to explore with no clear idea of the results you will achieve (what I think of as real research), you have zero chance of funding because your proposal will inevitably have lots of holes in it that reviewers can challenge.

Research funding bodies, to their credit, are aware of this problem and sometimes support special initiatives (like the LSCITS project) to try and be more innovative. By and large, however, these rarely work as the pressures for incrementalism that are imposed by the current university system are just too great. Researchers have to think of their future – if they take 3 or 5 years out to ‘think differently’, then they will probably never get another research job.

All of this means that CS research in universities is not the lever for innovation that it should be, it does not encourage creativity, nor is it addressing the grand societal challenges that we face.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the inevitable cuts in university and research funding may offer us a way out of this situation. If there are no research jobs, then the notion of a research career is less important and smart people don’t have to be so concerned about publications. Cuts in travel budgets mean that less time is spent travelling to conferences to present papers to people who are mostly reading their email anyway. The hateful research assessment may disappear and we can start thinking long term rather than writing about another incremental advance.  Maybe some of us oldsters will be kicked into early retirement before senility sets in and we will have time to think  differently.

But we must try and maintain support for our PhD students. PhD’s themselves are mostly incremental – students have to write and defend a thesis and innovation is inherently risky. But PhD students have time to think, to be innovative and to come up with new and exciting ideas for the future. With fewer research jobs, they may focus on startups who are, it seems to me, to be the true source of innovation nowadays.

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