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Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Every Researcher/Professor (Secretly) Hopes From Her Research Intern/Student

Life is about give-and-take. They offered you the internship or research job. Know what they expect in return


Its hard to imagine the professor whose course you  aced wanting anything more than your intellectual development and academic growth. Or for that matter, that researcher from XYZ corp., who offered you that juicy research internship, wanting anything more than working with you on your favorite dissertation topic. Isn't a student job or research internship more of the same grad school work, with money thrown in?

Please be under no such illusions. When you are offered money for work, you are in a job. Your supervisor has objectives in mind that she wants you to fulfill. Being aware of these objectives is the first thing you ought to do when you start your assignment. If you are lucky then your supervisor will discuss these objectives with you at the start of your job and write down your kpis (key performance indicators). For example,  a conference paper and a prototype implementation around topic "ABC" for the 4 month internship. But often researchers/professors do not discuss these objectives overtly. Why? Because research tends to be open-ended and there are multiple diverse ways for a student to be successful (or not). The kpi then becomes a moving target - "they know success when they see it".

Still, there are things that make your supervisor happy. A simple way of figuring this out is to look up her previous professional activities (papers, patents, conferences/journals targeted, demonstration/prototypes shown in tech fairs, etc) and think of how your work can improve the record here. Another effective approach is to track down an ex-student who has worked with your supervisor and ask her for the "expectations".

So that was the easy part. Tangible results in black or white.But there are other things you can do to impress your research supervisor. First and foremost, challenge her intellectually. Ask questions and put forth ideas. Show a willingness to learn new stuff and bring that knowledge into the way things are done. R & D is about pursuing the new and eschewing the status-quo. There is no point in shaking your head on every idea your research supervisor brings up; you need to show that you are more than two hands and two legs! Its the intellectual input your bring that really matters.



Friday, December 10, 2010

Research Student Job Interviews 101

I have interviewed dozens of research students over the years for student internships in R&D. Before that I interviewed several times for internships and student jobs. Here are some take aways from my experience.

  1. Answers have to be straight and to-the-point. Researchers are fact-driven people who dislike spin, buzzwords, and anything else that is more fluff and less meat.
  2. Giving short, concise answers leads to being asked more questions (since interview durations are fixed). This means getting more chances to impress the interviewer. 
  3. You interview with a person or a group, not a company! Make sure you have something intelligent to say about the specific group when asked about your interest in the position. The whole world knows Microsoft is a great software company with $XYZ billion revenues and ABC thousand highly skilled employees. But can you provide some insight about the research publications coming out of the image processing group at Microsoft Research where you are interviewing? 
  4. Know your CV inside out. This is very important because interviewers can pick out any bit and ask you about it. Anything on the CV is fair-game.
  5. This also leads to the corollary of not exaggerating or lying on the CV. Research scientists or professors are highly trained people who can easily discern how much someone actually knows. A student with a glowing CV and ordinary interview performance will be judged much more harshly than a student with a ordinary CV and an ordinary interview performance. Don't dash lofty expectations of interviewers. Do this by not creating lofty expectations in the first place. 
  6. I-dont-know is the best answer when you dont know the answer to a question instead of trying to dodge the question. But its also useful to add one sentence after saying I-dont-know to indicate any independent thinking on your part about how the question may be answered. This helps drive the conversation forward (see the next point).
  7. Difficult questions are asked so that interviewees can estimate your independent thinking capability. This is probably the single most important capability for any researcher. Try to work with the interviewer to arrive at an answer through common-sense reasoning if he leads you on by dropping clues.
  8. Refrain from political or opiniated statements (e.g. I hate Windows but love Linux). I once told an interviewer that I disliked C# because it was not open source; at the end of the interview he told me that his team used C# via an open-source C# version (Mono)! Check-mate.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Q&A with Dushyant Arora, undergraduate student at BITS Pilani, India

 In this series of posts (labeled QnA), students have come forward to share their experiences pertaining to R&D internships/jobs. This advice from the front-lines is an intimate view into the R&D world from a student's perspective.

 
Question: Please tell us your name, current academic affiliation, and degree pursued.

I am Dushyant Arora. I am presently working as an intern at Deutsche Telekom Laboratories in the Intelligent Networks Research Group. I recently completed B.E. (Hons.) in Computer Science from BITS, Pilani.

Question: What is your research experience till date – can you briefly enumerate important research internships/jobs/ projects ?

Internships:
  1.    Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai, India -  May – Jul 08
  2.    Max Planck Institute for Software Systems (MPI-SWS), Kaiserslautern, Germany -  May – Jul 09
  3.    HP Labs, Bangalore, India -  Jan – Jun 10
  4.    Deutsche Telekom Laboratories, Berlin, Germany -  Aug – Oct 10
Apart from these internships, I have done a couple of research projects with professors at my University.

Question: How did you net your first research internship/job. In particular, did you have any help from your school/contacts/etc or did you do it on your own?

I was fortunate that my college, BITS, Pilani, had institutionalized linkages with various industries in India and abroad through its Practice School programme. This one-of-its-kind programme provides students with opportunity to apply classroom learning in an industrial environment. I got internships at BARC and HP Labs through this program.

Question: What skills and courses undertaken in college/university have helped you the most in getting the internship/research job and then, what knowledge has helped you the most in conducting the research itself?

I had some prior research experience before I applied for an internship. I had done a few research projects with professors at my university. I think this helped me the most. Also, I did some homework about the kind of research the research lab/group is currently doing. I did this by reading the latest papers they had published.

Skills and courses learnt at undergraduate level provide you with a basic foundation of knowledge to build upon. They can’t prepare you for everything you will encounter in an internship. You must always be prepared to learn new things. In some of my internships, I encountered new fields of study which I didn’t even know existed before. Having said that the core disciplinary courses that helped me the most were Data Structures and Algorithms and Computer Networks. Needless to say, one must possess good coding skills.

Question: What were some of the things you achieved with your research experience (new skills, wrote a paper, met people, landed a job etc)?

The internships provided me an opportunity to explore new fields of study and helped me narrow down my research interests. The exposure you get in a research lab is unparalleled. Over these 4 internships, I have learnt a host of new languages, libraries, and software tools. Also, after working in an organization you learn soft skills like how to work in a team, communication skills etc. I also got a few publications. I learnt a lot about research being done by other researchers and research groups through various talks and lectures.

Question: What is the most important advice you want to give to research internship/job aspirants?

Always be enthusiastic to learn new stuff and to learn what people around you are doing. And obviously, work hard.

Question: What are your future plans?

I will be applying to US Graduate Schools for Fall 2011 admissions.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Student tip: English composition

This post carries a very important message. Your success in R&D is strongly correlated to how well you write in English.When you write an email to a professor/researcher, when you write a research report,  when you write a paper, or when you submit a grant proposal, what carries your impression is the text that the recipient reads. What sort of impression do you want to make?

Herein lies a problem. Most science/technology/medicine undergraduates do not practice English composition after high-school. Then suddenly, they are faced with the prospect of writing professional sounding prose. Harder than you think, and more important than almost any other skill or transcript grade. The challenge is to improve English composition to a level where it can impress rather than put off people. Here are some ideas to get you started.
  1.  Start early. You need time to improve English composition. And patience.
  2.  Read standard English text on a regular basis - Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time Magazine. They are all available online.
  3. Start writing. Put in genuine effort in writing email, start writing a blog, volunteer for your college newspaper, etc.
  4. Take a class. Try to find out if English composition is offered in some faculty of your university. Some faculties offer specific classes in technical/business writing.
  5. Converse with people who have a better command over the language than you do: it rubs on.
  6. A book that I highly recommend (from personal experience): The Technical Writer's Handbook by Matt Young.
Superior English composition will impress potential employers throughout your life (this applies equally to non-R&D fields). With discipline, patience, and hard-work, you can make it your secret weapon.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Student Tip: How to Approach a Researcher/Professor for a Job

This post presents a few ideas for students wanting to understand a professor's or researcher's professional work area. This is useful when you apply for a research job or internship.

Approaching a researcher or professor for a job or internship requires that you have an idea about her work beforehand. This helps in preparing your pitch and improves your chances of bubbling up to the top of the pile of student resumes she has received. Nothing impresses more than a student who can have a brief intelligent conversation about the professor's research field.

Understand that applying for a research job is not the same as applying for a university admission. Why? Because your interest in the research job should be genuine and specific to the work being offered by the professor or researcher. Your desire to get a university degree is also genuine, but the university was convinced about genuineness for every student who applied because a non-serious student would stand to lose the most anyway - her gpa, tuition fee, and time.

On the other hand, a wrong student hire can significantly degrade the output of a research project and harm the researcher's career prospects. Moreover, arbitrarily removing an under-performing student worker is politically unfavorable for a researcher or professor and is rarely an option. Therefore professors and researchers tread with extreme caution before hiring and are experts at sniffing out the good genuine students from the lackluster ones.

But lets put on the student's hat here. The student is obviously not an expert in the researchers field, the desire to do research partly stems from the financial aspect of the research job (tuition waiver/stipend/internship experience), she must cast a wide net, spanning dozens of professors/researchers, in order to net a "catch", and sometimes she hasn't ever met the researcher or professor to whom she is applying for a job. Its hard enough trying to understand one professor's work, but what with dozens?

Unlike university applications,  which tend to be almost identical across universities, each professor or researcher requires a unique effort on part of the student. Moreover, In fact, this arduous task is a natural selection process that separates casual student job hunters from the serious ones.Here are a few things to bear in mind when fishing for research jobs/internships

Approach Medium - Cold emailing is brave but can be construed as spam in the eyes of the researchers/professors. Not because they are snobbish and proud, but because they receive a barrage of the i-want-a-job emails every day. A classic tragedy of the commons - email is free to replicate and send for students. But it is expensive (in time) to read and act on the recipients part. If you can afford it, or if you are fortunate to be in the vicinity of where you want to work, then please arrange a face-to-face meeting via the appropriate channel (e.g. calling the secretary, asking your dad's uncle, who happens to be an academic, to introduce you, etc.).

However, you may not have the resources to personally meet potential employers, so email is by far the only plausible medium. Make sure your email is not spam. Heres how
  • Find out if there is a HR channel to send your application instead of directly emailing researchers/professors your resume and work samples. And yes, this is information you dig out through the organization's website, not by asking the professor or researcher!
  • Most i-want-a-job emails come roughly 4-6 months before the start of the job (e.g. most summer internship applications arrive between the preceding October and January) . Why should that be? How about some extra effort, much in advance, to start reading and learning your prospective employers' work and start a genuine conversation thread regarding their work. If you have good ideas then  most researchers/professors would be happy to hire you, and assign your time to you so that you can pursue your idea.
Another great idea is to pull interest toward you instead of fishing for jobs. How? Start your own blog, post interesting things you've read or you've worked with - that homework assignment when you programmed that hash table or a sideshow of your herbarium. Or how about posting a review of a research paper you read and then asking for the author's take on your review? I once had a student who send me  a few data inputs for which a program I posted on my website didn't work. No offense taken. And yes I badly wanted to hire him (but he wasn't available - the good ones are hard to get!).

Show you are passionate about what you do and that you are willing to go the extra mile and contribute to others' benefit. Think, reflect, opine - its creative minds they are after.




More on this later...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Student Tip: The 30-second Elevator Pitch

Why you need to think up of a 30-second verbal summary of your work, and what it should deliver.

Yes you need it need it even if you are a research student! The 30-second elevator pitch about the work you do. You will asked, in some form or another, time and again, and your answer will be used to size you up as a potential collaborator, funding recipient, and future employee. So its never too early to make one up.

What is expected out of the pitch?

At the minimum, the pitch needs to answer the following questions
  1. Your name, your research group (you may include your advisor's name), and if needed, your affiliation
  2. Your sub-field of specialization in the subject you work on. Remember that you will need to specialize or generalize (zoom in or zoom out) depending on the expertise of your audience. For example, if speaking to a professor of computer science you may want to say something like "I work in distributed routing algorithms for wireless ad-hoc networks" but while speaking to a HR recruiter you may want to limit it to wireless communication and algorithms.
  3. The key benefit of of your work vs. the state of art, or, why should anyone be excited about what you do.
Yep, thats it. Remember, people may not have more than 30 seconds so make sure to deliver your pitch in that time-frame. A good first impression can open a lot of doors. Make the elevator pitch your walking verbal resume.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Student tip: Traits of a Good Student Researcher

Are there specific traits in people that lead to success in a research career?

My cousin asked me about what kinds of students do research and what traits make someone successful in the 'research line'. An important question, and one that any student considering R&D would (and should) ask herself. But frankly, I haven't been able to stereotype the type of students who do very well as compared to the students who don't do well. What I have seen is that most students have a mix of the following abilities:

Innovator (You like breaking things to find out how they work)
"You once put sodium metal into a water filled petri dish and delighted in the aftermath, you made paper aeroplanes out of your language composition notebooks, you have a Linux OS partition on your home PC, your idea of a news website is slashdot.org, you are the in-house geek, your folks bought you Lego Technik sets for each Christmas since you were 5 and you always made something completely different than the model the brochure suggested."

Driven Hard worker (You are the human incarnation of an industrious ant)
"You are honestly hard-working, you are disciplined enough to see the sun rising occasionally, you solve each problem at the end of each text book chapter and go ask your professor or TA about the ones that you cannot solve, you love extra-credit problems, you have tried to read your professor's research paper (perhaps without understanding it), you type and print your homework assignments (including equations), you buy your subsequent semester books in Christmas break and then try to read these books over the Christmas break."

Whiz kid (you are an alien-like prodigy)
"You represented your country in the International Math Olympiad, you have a perfect GPA, you are in line to get the president's gold medal at your college commencement ceremony, you can compute the 17th root of Pi in one second, your professor uses your homework assignment submission as the homework solution sheet, you landed a Fulbright scholarship, you won the spelling bee competition, and you think about Extreme value theory whenever you hear about the stock market."

Don't really know (you are a normal John/Jane Doe)
"You don't fit into any of the above categories because you never thought about all the stuff mentioned up there, you simply don't care about who you are because your Facebook profile answers that question about you, you are always something of everything but not not really a lot of something, you haven't decided your major, you have a good GPA, a good understanding of your courses, a good desire to work, but the keyword is decent and not flamboyant."

Its important to remember that these traits are not orthogonal to each other, in fact success seems to come easier to those who can combine innovating, working hard and thinking smartly rather than just 'specializing' in one of these traits. Also important is the 'don't really know' category - because building a successful career requires networking and people skills - both of which depend on other non-research folks not binning you into one of the first 3 categories.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cellphone Microscope: Research & Development, with Impact

A contemporary example of how an elegant research idea can make a large impact.

I came across the story of a $10 cellphone microscope, invented by a team lead by Aydogan Ozcan, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and member of the California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. A cellphone microscope can come pretty handy in areas without diagnostic laboratories - e.g. underdeveloped nations. A quick way to do a red blood count, a bacterial analysis, a sperm count, you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, the invention has caught the attention of the Melinda and Bill gates Foundation and National Science Foundation among others (earning the research group multiple research grants).

And no, the researchers behind the work are not going to remain middle-class academics; apparently they have filed patents around their invention and intend to commercialize the invention. Way to go!

Here is a short video (courtesy UCLA) show casing the invention.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Big Picture on the State of Innovation

In this round-table, organized by the Churchill Club, R&D leaders debate the "innovation drought" over the past decade, i.e., too much incremental research and aversion to big-bet blue-sky research.

Speakers:
Josephine M. Cheng, IBM Fellow & Vice President, IBM Almaden Research Center
Judy Estrin, CEO, JLABS
Rick Rashid, Senior Vice President, Research, Microsoft
Sue Siegel, Partner, Mohr Davidow Ventures

Moderator:
Michael Mandel, Chief Economist, BusinessWeek



Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Speed R&D via Rapid Development

Here is an extreme case of "startup-based" R&D. Below is an interview of Dom Sagolla, Twitter co-founder, who has undertaken a new startup venture called DollarApp. The idea is simple, develop 1 iPhone application using 1 developer in 1 month, then sell it for $1. I call this speed R&D (the key is the "&").

In a nutshell:
  1. Get (idea) --> Set (program) --> Go (deploy to app store, sell).
  2. Repeat


    What do you think? Post your comments below.



Monday, July 5, 2010

Student Tip: Managing Research Risk

Scientists are not known to be risk-takers in life and so it might come as a surprise to you, but research is risky - you stand to loose a lot of time and effort when a particular research thread turns out to be a red herring. Consider this (bad) scenario for a research student: many months or even years of work, and no research result or paper to show for it. Judging success or failure is usually black and white in research: simply put, good research or bad research is decided by the prestige of the journal or conference where the research is accepted for publication. The intermediate sweat and hard work that actually goes into the research is of lesser interest to the academic community, or indeed to anyone thinking of hiring you.

At the organizational or societal level research risk is mitigated via hedging, i.e., by investing in several research teams in a multitude of topics. For example, the NSF issues 100s of grants to 100s of research groups across the US every year. A few research grants that yield good results cover up for the other average and under- performing research projects. Can the same technique be applied at the individual level? But can you hedge against say, a Ph.D. topic, that seems promising to start with but may not yield tangible results two years down the line?

The answer to the question is yes. Individual research risk can be managed by putting your eggs in multiple baskets, i.e., by spreading your bets. This can be done, for example, by broadening the scope of the research problem you are investigating, trying to start up research collaborations with other researchers (often by bringing a particular skill or contribution to someone else's work), and most importantly, by being prepared to admit quickly that your research problem as being intractable and adapting.

Broadening the scope of the research problem should be done as and when new information is available. For example, if you discover that the particular algorithm you are developing is unsuitable for its primary use case, try to see if it can be adopted for another use case. You can also contribute by comparing your approach to other competing approaches in solving a research problem. For example, one approach may optimize for fast data transmission at the expense of higher battery usage in a mobile phone. Many times it is impossible to come up with a solution to a research problem that optimizes some parameters but remember that different people are looking to optimize different parameters. Doing a honest through survey of the pros-and-cons of different approaches to solve a research problem is highly relevant research, much more so than a paper describing a failed research attempt.

Perhaps the methodology you used for experimentation had some novel aspects that may be interesting to the research community. For example, in computer engineering there is a whole research community who build and discuss testbeds for doing further research. If you have been creative in your research work, then try to identify the innovative aspect and present this aspect to the relevant community.

More can be done when you start working with others. Look around in your organization or department to find folks who may have similar research interests as you do. The idea is reach outside of your comfort zone (your academic adviser) and collaborate with other people who may be working on related problems. While you may not lead any other research threads you find, working on different problems with different people is a significant value addition to your early research career. If you participate in multiple research threads, chances are that at least a few will yield great results. You have just hedged your research risk. Off course, one must be mindful of not committing ones time on too many research threads, be mindful of keeping ones academic adviser (i.e. stipend source :-) ) informed, and mindful of prioritizing which research thread is more important than the other.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Notable Read: Technology and Courage by Ivan Sutherland

I read the essay titled "Technology and Courage" by Ivan Sutherland recently. Its one of those essays that you wished you'd read earlier. This one offers plenty of perspective into how to take on research risks, have the courage to stand by your ideas, and more importantly, the courage to stop working on them when the need arises.

Ivan Sutherland, winner of the ACM Turing award, is a noted entrepreneur and researcher in the field of computer graphics. I highlight a few interesting points from his essay here. I'd have to write down the whole essay here before I can do it justice and so I highly recommend you read it on your own (again, you can download it here).
  • There are several ways of mitigating research risk and entrepreneurial risk. One effective ways is writing things down e.g. a thesis outline or a business plan. This brings up some concrete future plan - one that you may not follow - but something to bolster courage and start working toward a goal
  • Being ignorant of the risks is good, at least in the beginning, because then you try to solve problems deemed "hard" or "unsolvable" - this is where young researchers have an advantage over their experienced counterparts
  • If you aren't failing sometimes you are not doing challenging things
  • Teamwork is important in research as it is in starting up new businesses
  • Hiding an idea by not getting it published because you are unsure of its merit is foolish because you'll never be sure if you did the right thing; science and technology has progressed at this remarkable pace in recent times only because people risked their reputations by working on ideas deemed "risky" at the time
  • Overcome the fear of starting a new research problem or a new start-up company by breaking down a big problem into many smaller sub-problems.
  • Doing familiar, low-risk things instead of trying to do genuine new stuff - like starting a company or new thread of research - may seem easier but remember the opportunity cost of doing something inane instead of investing your time and resources in the new stuff that may have a much higher payback

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Student Tip: Obtaining (the Right Version of) a Research Paper

In this post I explain how and where to look for research papers.

Research papers are usually published in a journal or the proceedings of a conference or workshop. A 'proceedings' is the compendium of papers presented to the audience during the conference or workshop. If an Internet search does not yield what you are looking for, libraries should be your preferred method of obtaining research papers. You may be surprised to learn that there is often more than one version of the same research paper available online. Getting the correct version may make the subsequent task of reading the material much easier for you.

Most libraries that subscribe to scientific publications tend to archive research journals and proceedings. Moreover, many libraries have collaborations on the local, state and even national level with other libraries that allows them to pull papers from each other. Your cost is usually limited to the copy machine charges since copying research papers for research/teaching purposes clearly falls within "academic fair use". I am often surprised by the resourcefulness of librarians when it comes to locating a paper (Google doesn't even come close!). It is also helpful to remember that while a huge swathe of research papers has been scanned and stored online, scanning produces images of pages, not machine-readable text. That means search engines cannot link your query to these papers easily.

Many recent research papers are available online nowadays but a successful search may not be enough; you may be asked to pay before you can download some papers. If you are affiliated to a university or R&D organization or have access to a good library, then it is possible that the publisher of the paper has an agreement with your organization that lets you access papers for free. You can find out if this is the case by checking with the librarian or concerned HR employee.

Increasingly there is also a push to making research papers freely available via online archive services such as Arxiv and on the websites of researchers and/or their host institutions. There is no harm in trying to ascertain if the researcher's website hosts a version of the paper you are interested in. Some researchers also solicit emails from individuals requesting their papers but emailing should be your last resort. The last thing you want to do is put off a (possibly important) member of your research community. Save the email for later - perhaps for when you need help understanding the paper.

You may find multiple versions of the same paper are sometimes available. Why should this be? Because researchers submit different versions of their work to different venues. While there are rules about not resubmitting the same paper to multiple venues, newer results, more detailed descriptions, analyses, or modified experiments are all legitimate reasons to resubmit papers for publication in another venue. Sometimes this is a blessing to the reader looking for details. For example, a graduate student's 120-page thesis is probably more detailed than her research paper (her Thesis condensed into 12 pages!) On the other hand, if you are looking for the gist of a paper, search if the researcher has posted a presentation that she made based on the paper. Spend some time looking for the version that suits your purpose best.

What do you think? Post your comments below.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Student Tip: Choosing Research Topics

In this post I throw in some points to ponder for students trying to find research and thesis topics.

As a student, finding research topics can be difficult. First, as as new research student you are not sure of which topics interest you more than others. Second, you have to work with an advisor or mentor (e.g. professor, postdoc or senior PhD student) and sometimes they may be vague about what they want you to do. Third, there are many choices. How to choose?

Needless to say, choosing a research topic is a big professional decision. It will define the scope of your publications, your thesis or dissertation, and later come up umpteen times when you interview for jobs. Remember, if your research career takes off, you may be working in and around the chosen research topic for years to come. So the first and foremost rule is to choose topics that really interest you.

To some extent, the broad scope of research work you start with is bounded by the interest of your research advisor and the research grant that funds your stipend (in case you are hired as a research assistant). Research grant proposals contain the planned direction of research and this information can help you narrow down topics. Your research advisor's recent publications are a good indication of topics which interest her. There are research advisors who give their students a lot of latitude in what they can do but tread carefully - in the end every advisor has a certain vision of what comprises successful research. For example, she may equate success with a publication being accepted to a certain conference. Ask your research advisor about what makes for a successful research topic in her opinion. Then select research topics that have a realistic chance of achieving this goal.

In case you do not have a research advisor and are not funded via a grant, shortlist those faculty and staff members with whom you want to work. Then look at their recent publications and speak with them about possible research topics. Senior researchers usually have a number of research topics in the back of their minds. A motivated student (especially one who has read some of their research papers) is very hard to resist for them!

What do you think? Post your comments below.

Roles of Research Laboratories

In this post I put forth the logic behind the existence of research labs and some of their benefits that warrant the investment.

The lions share of non-academic R&D happens in research labs. These institutions, as part of private corporations or governments, conduct research in fields related to their sponsoring agency. For example, government research labs may have a focus on agriculture research or defence-related research. Private R&D labs usually focus on scientific work related to the products and services offered by their parent private corporation. However, most research labs are afforded a certain degree of freedom because their core task is looking beyond the current version of products and services of their parent institutions.

In many cases research labs create future products or services. For example, Bell Lab researchers invented the electronic transistor in 1960, the basic electronic component in all electronic and computer systems today. Pharmaceutical companies rely on their research labs to come up with new drugs on a continuous basis. Scientists in research labs create intellectual property - for example, papers, patents, experimental prototypes - as a means of enriching the intellectual assets and idea repository of their sponsoring organizations.

Research labs are the (sponsoring) organization's eyes and ears into research and development happening around the world. This is becoming more important because a large number of products and services incorporate open-source modules to push down product development costs and benefit from the quality control, rather than rely on building every product feature from the ground up. For example, modern TVs have the ability to display pictures and videos stored on a USB drive. Several leading TV manufacturers use open-source Linux instead of building proprietary and expensive systems of their own. Because of the open organizational nature of research labs, they are great conduits to engage this sort of "community driven" product development and adoption.

Labs working openly with external business partners (suppliers, clients) foster collaborations that may lead to improving suppliers' product offerings or boosting sales to clients. For example, BBN Technologies routinely works with government research labs in conducting research in defence- related work. Unsurprisingly, the US governmental agency DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) routinely sponsors BBN-lead projects.

One often overlooked function of research labs is to contribute to the social responsibility aspect of organizations, because research is seen as a activity that generally benefits society, at least for a couple of reasons. First, many of the technologies that have had a tremendous social impact were created in research labs, a great example being the Internet. Second, scientists employed in research labs embody a repository of human knowledge in their fields of speciality; when they participate in activities like publishing or teaching/mentoring students/interns, that knowledge is propagated in society. No wonder many governments confer tax benefits to organizations investing in R&D.

All in all, research labs are good value, but only if their biggest asset - the intellect they nurture - is utilized effectively. If an organization has disposable resources to spend on its future products and services then an internal research lab is certainly worth the investment.

What do you think? Post your comments below.