The State of Research: Where Are We Headed?

Industry and academia have become shortsighted

14 February 2018

Research is crucial to the discovery and creation of knowledge. Without it, we would still be riding horses instead of driving cars and would not have surmounted geographical distances by airplane or bridged the communications divide with the advent of the Internet.

Humankind has been through a long history of exploring unknowns. Such exploration is pivotal to building a higher level of civilization. Which is why I’m concerned about the state of research today.

Industry as a whole is now focused on short-term research, often called D&D—design and development—which results in marketable products within a two- to three-year time frame. More often than not, such innovations are regarded as marginal leaps in technologies. Research takes time to culminate, and most breakthroughs come only after a good number of years.

Even the world-famous Bell Labs has moved away from fundamental and applied research. Bell Labs was the most prestigious industry research lab in the world. Now its reputation has diminished with its new vision and goals.Many of its researchers now work at universities. But academia has become shortsighted too. Professors are tasked with many roles: teaching, supervising students, seeking research funding, publishing, and more. They are typically conducting research only on a part-time basis. Moreover, their research will depend on the quality of students they attract. And even so, many of today’s Ph.D. students who plan to work in industry are not focused on long-term research but on product development and even marketing.

So who is now doing the long-term fundamental research that will disrupt the market and drastically improve quality of life? And what role will or should IEEE play in terms of advancing research?

Although IEEE offers conferences, technical meetings, and publications, it does not direct or sponsor research. There is no collective and unified body that promotes the importance of research, not even national science and engineering academies throughout the world.

Perhaps we in the field need to rethink the current situation and seek ways to promote and substantiate research in industry, while at the same time bringing together universities, national research foundations, and national academies worldwide in cultivating and promoting research.

Progress in human civilization is everyone’s responsibility. It is time for us to unite and act.

IEEE Fellow Chai K. Toh is professor of electrical engineering and computer science at National Tsing Hua University, in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

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