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Science is like Star Trek

Our mission in academia is to “explore strange new worlds, … to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Professors and their teams should be free to focus on high-risk topics, to publish less, and to emphasize quality. Collaboration with industry can sometimes help in accomplishing this mission provided you find the right partner.

My main field of research is communications and networking, which lies at the interface between electrical and computer engineering. Many breakthroughs in this field were achieved by theoretical contributions using rigorous scientific methods. The entire field of digital communications was actually given rise with the seminal work of Claude Shannon, who quantified information and proposed a mathematical theory of communication. A series of great contributions in information theory, coding, communications, signal processing, antenna theory, networking protocols, queuing theory, and related topics followed over the decades. This body of research has enabled us to use smart phones, enjoy digital media, wear Internet watches, and benefit from networked medical body implants, to give some examples. At the same time, communications and networking has become a cross discipline of importance to robotics and automation, intelligent transport, production and logistics, and other fields.

Because of its importance, academic research in communications and networking became somehow overcrowded in the first decade of this century. The number of conferences proliferated; some of them have more than thousand presentations. The average quality of presentations has severely dropped: It is hard to find didactically well-prepared and well-explained research talks from speakers who communicate their topic and ideas comprehensibly. This has also damaged the atmosphere of scientific debates. There are some very good conferences that counter this trend and maybe some specialized workshops that were never severely affected, but most conferences are a waste of time, at least in their technical sessions, in terms of novelty and education. Sometimes only the tutorials, keynotes, and panels with invited experts are worthwhile. To stand out from the crowd you have to deliver quality not quantity.

High-quality science needs funding, so let’s talk about this issue. The majority of research funding in Europe in communications and networking goes to “applied projects,” while it became increasingly difficult to receive funding for fundamental research. To give two examples, the acceptance rates of the European Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Open program are below five percent, and the overall volume of projects accepted by the Austrian Science Fund in the entire discipline “electrical engineering, electronics, and information and communications engineering” was below € 500,000 in 2016 (in one of the richest countries in the world). Even very good and excellent research proposals do not get funded. Programs with such low acceptance rates might produce more harm than they promote science.

The research strategy under these conditions seems obvious: Let’s go where the money is and only do applied research. This is a valid strategy, but I believe that it will lead to insignificance in the long term because researchers lose touch with theory. “The supposed contradiction between theory and practice was put into the world as the excuse of those who are too lazy or less intelligent for theory,” says Johannes Huber, professor emeritus for information transmission at the University Erlangen-Nuremberg. He criticizes researchers who argue to be practitioners who do not need to understand the theory. As stated above, many breakthroughs with great impact on society result from fundamental theoretical achievements and insights, not from tinkering and crafting.

Despite of such difficult funding situations in many countries, we should still re-emphasize high-quality fundamental research in communications and networking. We must dare to enter territory that seems strange at a first glance, try to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” This does not mean that the objectives are unclear; they can in fact be defined in a very precise manner. Neither does it mean that we limit ourselves to pure analytical work without experiments, prototypes, and measurements. The opposite is the case: Utilizing modern programmable hardware, new algorithms can quickly be tested under real conditions, such that the path from invention to prototype becomes shorter and shorter.

My personal experience from 20 years in academia and industry has been that working on fundamental questions frequently leads to issues that eventually become highly relevant to industry, and addressing questions of interest to industry often brings us back to very fundamental questions. This is a natural cycle and one of the great benefits of collaborations between universities and companies (or other organizations). A risk of restricting yourself to “applied research” is that you will not be able to spot the fundamental questions and, even if you did, you will have neither resources nor people to address them. In fact, I do not like the frequently practiced strict distinction between “basic research” and “applied research,” due to the beneficial interplay between them.

Some may say that there are no more fundamental topics in communications and networking. I do not agree, but if that was the case, we can still strive for transferring the great methods, techniques, and concepts developed in our field over the past 70 years to other fields of science and engineering.

Let’s not ever give up being scientists but continue to “explore strange new worlds,” just like Star Trek will always do.

Christian Bettstetter is professor and head of the Institute of Networked and Embedded Systems in Klagenfurt, Austria. He is also founding scientific director of Lakeside Labs, a nonprofit company that performs research on self-organizing networked systems. (He loves science fiction movies.)

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This story was also published at Medium, where you can leave comments and let me know whether you liked it.