Proposals and Innovation (Kudos to Google)

I think it was my colleague Michael Lesk that mentioned someone (I forget whom) performing a “back-of-an-envelope” (or was it “side-of-a-napkin”?) calculation, showing that the NSF proposal process results in negative gains to the research community (logic: number of hours writing proposals by researchers everywhere vs. the number of hours of work eventually funded).

I am sure Michael, a former NSF director, doesn’t completely believe in that, but I also believe that this calculation overlooked a very important value-generating factor: idea diffusion from the academic to the private sector.

You know how sometimes you have a great idea or insight, only to discover that somebody else already had that idea? Even worse, you know how this happens and you realize that you actually read that paper where the idea was described but forgot all about it? (yes, Ayman, this happens to people my age, you’ll see when you get there).

My thesis is that while not all NSF proposals get funded, all of them are reviewed and evaluated by panels that include many researchers inĀ  companies. The ideas in these proposals stick in the minds of the readers, and could very well be unconsciously adapted or used later (I am not saying anyone is out to steal the academics’ ideas!).

This is why I find Google’s Faculty Research Awards an entirely good idea, both for the faculty and for Google. In particular, the open nature of the awards program (not specifically tied to current Google products or data, for one) is a key feature. Yes, G will get a lot of submissions and will spend valuable time reviewing each and every one of them. Obviously, the funded proposals will benefit Google as they create a direct link between the researcher and a Google person that will learn about the findings. But even the mere act of having all the world’s researchers sending Google their ideas and suggestions is bound to leave some trace in Googler’s minds. Google thus increases the funnel of innovation and ideation (I hate that word) to collect input way beyond its own engineers and employees.

Now, if they end up supporting my proposal, that would prove that they are even more brilliant!

4 thoughts on “Proposals and Innovation (Kudos to Google)

  1. Ryan Shaw

    Another example of Google making up for a “public failure”?

    In contrast to a “market failure,” a “public failure” is the phenomenon in which an erosion or retreat of state commitment and resources to a public good or need reveals an opportunity for an ambitious firm to assume control of a service and fold it into a market advantage.

    Siva Vaidhyanathan

  2. naaman Post author

    Well, Siva indeed is talking about Google services, at least in that paragraph. I am not completely sure it applies here. In particular, I don’t think Google “assumes control” over the service of academic funding here, although they certainly intend to fold their activities into market advantage.

    There’s another paragraph from Siva that can be taken as reflecting on this scenario:

    Given the passions and promotion of such computational models for science of all types, we run the risk of diverting precious research funding and initiatives away from the hard, expensive, plodding laboratory science that has worked so brilliantly for three centuries. Already, major university administrations are pushing to shift resources away from lab space and toward server space. The knowledge generated by massive servers and powerful computers will certainly be significant and valuable – potentially revolutionary. But it should not come at the expense of tried-and-true methods of discovery that lack the sexiness of support from Google and an endorsement from Wired.

    I guess generally that would be the risk of Google thwarting scientific research to address its own research agenda. And indeed, I am sure that is part of their motivation (although they seem to fund efforts that might not be directly related to their products). But my post was not meant to be critical of the use of public goods or services — that is difficult question, whether society benefits, overall, from Google funding academic research. My point is that just like the NSF process has benefits to the private sector (an NSF goal if I understand their mission correctly) that exceed the obvious, the Google funding model is a great idea for Google (and works well for the funded academics).

    Makes sense?

  3. Ryan Shaw

    Makes sense, and I don’t mean to criticize the Google program. But there is plenty of criticism of NSF and other public funding agencies for, e.g., not funding enough younger researchers, not funding enough risky research, etc. Google’s initiative can be viewed as an effort to make up for these failures (in a way that benefits Google, but also others). My concern is that the government might come to see investment in research as something that can or should be completely handled by the private sector.

    Your post made me think of something else: it would be great if *everyone* could benefit from seeing research proposals. Not only would ideas circulate, but people would learn more about what does and what doesn’t get funded, learn about potential collaborators, etc. What are the barriers to an open, transparent research grant system? Obviously fear of having ideas stolen is one. What else?

  4. naaman Post author

    Well, I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen at the NSF so far. At least in the area I work in, I think there is the intent and even practice of looking for “risky” research. And there’s the CAREER thing for young faculty, too. But there’s never enough. Yes, I am too worried about the next Bush in office that decides that “free markets” can govern research. McCain was close to doing it… we were saved this time.

    Now, about your proposal… interesting, but would it work? I think fear of having ideas stolen might be a deal breaker. People share their ideas with confidential review board. Would they share as freely if they knew anyone can tap into their ideas? However, how about this: maybe a different system proposing research you are NOT going to undertake. You know how you have 10,000 ideas and only time for 5? Post the rest of them, let someone pick it up, and (maybe) get some credit!

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