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 in 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!