Saturday, April 09, 2005

On knowledge for knowledge's sake.

The CRA blog points to an eloquent OpEd in the WaPo by science writer Rick Weiss:
Crouched today in a defensive posture, we are suffering from a lack of confidence and a shriveled sense of the optimism that once urged us to reach boldly into the unknown. Equally important, we seem to have forgotten that many good things come just from being open to them, without a formed idea of what they are or how they should come out. We are losing, in short, one of the oldest traditions in science: to simply observe, almost monk-like, with an open mind and without a plan.
The desire for knowledge for its own sake seems almost quaint in these days of interdisciplinary research, justifying one's bottom line, monetizing one's research, and so on and so forth. I remember back in the heady days of the late 90s that doing a Ph.D had become something distinctly unfashionable; only the poor sods who didn't have an idea for seed funding were plodding away at their degrees.

There is much to be grateful for in the gold rush of the 90s. Not necessarily for the innovation it fueled - there was enough of that already - but for the tremendous boost it gave to the computer industry, and to computer science as a whole. The job market exploded, and people started getting insane salaries for doing the same kind of work that would have got them much less earlier; I often feel that I am overpaid for the the work that I do (not that I am complaining :)).

But with this kind of success comes a price. There is something to be said for toiling in the trenches for low pay and low reward, if only that it directs your attention to what really matters. When opportunity knocks, pressure is not far behind. What I mean is that as opportunities for making money off of research increase, the expectations for doing so also increase, and soon, you are having to explain why you are NOT doing profitable research.

I feel that in some ways this has happened with research in computer science (not wholly, but in many ways). The more industry-focused research is, the more short term or "evolutionary" it tends to be. Big questions are not asked, and thus are not answered.

At NetDB, there was a panel titled 'Networks and Databases: Do We Meet or Merge ?". An interesting argument made by one of the speakers was that peer-to-peer systems, although an active area of research, will not last as long as something like sensor networks, that have industry backing as well (the implicit suggestion being that one is more worthy of further study than the other). Given how profoundly the notion of a peer-to-peer system has affected our lives, especially socially, it seems like an unfortunate argument to make, and is an argument motivated primarily by financial considerations.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, to be honest. It's just that I've had far too many discussions about whether knowledge acquisition should be utility driven or "for its own sake", and all the signs suggesting that government is actively enforcing the first view disturb me greatly.

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