Indian Computer Science (CS) & Information Technology (IT) Academic Reform Activism Consolidated Blog Document

CS & IT: Pure vs. Applied Reseach

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CS & IT: Pure vs. Applied Reseach

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Note: This post is from a mail exchange related to the post: CS & IT Academia: Research vs. Teaching
Eklavya Sai had written in a previous mail: academic researchers tend to find new ideas more attractive that extending old ideas... But what is important is the quality of the solution and the satisfaction it gives to the users and not whether the ideas/approaches used are old or new.

Friend wrote: Exactly. So putting together the two points we agree on, which are quoted above, academia should look at how to improve things without bringing into consideration whether the idea is new or old.

Eklavya Sai responded: My second statement which you have quoted above is what I made in the context of the "technologist/software engineering perspective" and not in the context of an academic researcher's perspective. See more of my comments lower down.

Friend wrote: I was trying to say, this is perhaps part of what people mean when they talk of the academia-industry gulf. Academia (again speaking in broad strokes) restrictions itself to idea generation. Whereas we need people assembling them into next-generation systems, and in fact new ideas may or may not be called for in solving a given problem. The focus should be on the ends (solve the problem) rather than the means (whether coming up with new ideas or assembling existing ideas in different ways).

Eklavya Sai responded: Well, I think your view is somewhat limited to "practical problem solving" research & development. While I am sure you are aware of the Pure Research & Applied Research differences I feel it will help the discussion to put down some salient points about them (as I, a non-researcher using Wikipedia sources of information, see them :-)].

Importance of Pure Research from

Pure research, basic research, or fundamental research  is research  carried out to increase understanding of fundamental principles. Many times the end results have no direct or immediate commercial benefits: pure research can be thought of as arising out of curiosity. However, in the long term it is the basis for many commercial products and applied research. Pure research is mainly carried out by universities.


Pure research generates new ideas, principles and theories, which may not be immediately utilized; though are the foundations of modern progress and development in different fields. Today's computers could not exist without the pure research in mathematics conducted over a century ago, for which there was no known practical application at that time. Pure research rarely helps practitioners directly with their everyday concerns. Nevertheless, it stimulates new ways of thinking about deviance that have the potential to revolutionize and dramatically improve how practitioners deal with a problem.

--- end extracts from Pure Research wiki page ----

I am not a mathematician neither do I know the history of mathematics to know the accuracy and reliability of the statement above, "Today's computers could not exist without the pure research in mathematics conducted over a century ago, for which there was no known practical application at that time." But I would not be surprised if it is true and I presume it to be true as it is on Wikipedia unless some authoritative (knowledge-based authority) person disputes it.

For the purposes of this discussion let us presume the statement to be true. So if all of research & engineering was only towards practical solutions to society's problems then you & I would not be enjoying the computer & internet age!!!

Now I am not a researcher either. But I do have an opinion about research and here is my technologist opinion of research, for all its worth :-).

Industrial research may have very limited scope for "pure research" as industry is focused on providing solutions to society's problems, or rather those societal problems whose solutions have profit potential.

Academia probably is the only large community where "pure research" can be done without worrying about any practical problem-solving ends. And, perhaps, the intellectual excitement and allure of a radical new idea is far more thought-provoking and galvanising than extending an old idea. So I think it is quite natural for academia to have a bias towards new ideas.

But then academia also has "applied research". And I think that applied research publications and project achievements are also well recognised in academia. But "applied research" is also the area of industry research and so perhaps there is some kind of competition there. "Applied research" where the profit potential is very limited like Text to Speech for Telugu or Malayalam or Sanskrit is typically ignored by industry. This is where some academic "applied research" is/can be done. I think here academia is quite receptive to extending old ideas to solve the problem.

However, IMHO, no matter how useful the extension of an old idea may be to solve a practical problem, the radical new idea "breakthrough" will always have more intellectual grandeur and appeal to the researcher & thinker and to the academic community, in general. And so, academia will, perhaps, always have a "new idea"/"original & path-breaking work"/"innovative idea" craze :-)! If somebody is not so comfy with it, like you and me, then we don't fit in 'regular' academia as it is today - as simple as that!

Eklavya Sai had written in a previous mail: That, I think, is a really key difference between a technologist's view and an 'academic' researcher's view.

Friend wrote: And it's obvious which camp I belong to :)

Eklavya Sai responded: I guess I belong to the same camp as you :-). I also am respectful of the other camp and their view and their choice.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Google's Hybrid Research + Development Model

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Last Updated on July 23rd 2012

Here is a very interesting recent paper from ACM flagship, CACM, July 2012 on "Google’s Hybrid Approach to Research". The page also has an embedded video of around 5 minutes where the authors give their views - worth watching, IMHO.

Some important points of the paper from my perspective:

  1. "Research results come not only from universities, but also from companies, both large and small. The way research results are disseminated is also evolving and the peer-reviewed paper is under threat as the dominant dissemination method. Open source releases, standards specifications, data releases, and novel commercial systems that set new standards upon which others then build are increasingly important."

  1. Google does research + development together with R&D (or R&E) teams usually writing production or near-production code from day one! [Ravi: That's awesome!]

  1. "Typically, a single team iteratively explores fundamental research ideas, develops and maintains the software, and helps operate the resulting Google services— all driven by real-world experience and concrete data."

  1. Google's CS Research follows "Hybrid Research Model" where research teams are encouraged to have the right balance between research and engineering activities. The right balance can vary greatly. [Ravi: That's quite fuzzy. But the message that they give importance to engineering/software development as a vital part of its research model comes through clearly.]

  1. The paper has some information about Google's research efforts e.g. Google Translate, Google File System.

  1. Google publishes research work in academic publications "at increasing rates (from 13 papers published in 2003, to 130 in 2006, to 279 in 2011)."

  1. Google feels that academic publications are "by no means the only mechanism for knowledge dissemination: Googlers have led the creation of over 1,000 open source projects, contributed to various standards (for example, as editor of HTML5), and produced hundreds of public APIs for accessing our services."

  1. Google has "chosen to organize computer science research differently at Google by maximally connecting research and development. This yields not only innovative research results and new technologies, but also valuable new capabilities for the company."

--- end Google Hybrid Research + Development Model Paper - my perspective points ---

Some additional points regarding Google from a friend

Please note that some of the points mentioned below may have been covered in the above paper itself.

  1. Google seems to care about applied research, not pure — a Googler needs to be able to articulate why his/her research will substantially benefit millions of users.

  2. Google research is short-to-medium term: a few years at most.

  3. Google tries to break research down into a number of intermediate deliverables that each have commercial value.

  4. A research project may impact users, or it may advance theoretical knowledge, or ideally both.

  5. They don't build elaborate research prototypes. Focus is on real systems with real data and production-quality code. So research is often a component of a production-oriented larger project rather than being a separate research project in itself.

Necessary components of the Google model:

  1. Smart engineers

  2. Ability for individuals, or entire teams, to transition to or from the research organization

  3. Distributed computing infrastructure that lets a small team use tens of thousands of servers, which enables large-scale experiments

  4. A billion users

  5. Lots of money

The friend reiterated that publishing (academic) papers is only one way to distribute knowledge.

Indian CS Academic Research vs. Google Hybrid CS Research

I (Ravi) find Google's hybrid approach to be very interesting as it is in very great contrast to what I have seen in Indian academic CS research. Very often, the craze is to produce a 'paper' and the 'research' stops there - I have not come across many instances of research efforts from Indian CS or IT academia which went beyond 'paper' to get translated into semi-real-life stuff which can then be handed over to interested software companies for real-life implementation. Maybe I am not that well informed. If Indian CS academia does have a hybrid research + development model then perhaps such models should be given publicity. Anyway I got put off Indian academic CS research due to this 'paper' publication limited goal mind-set - I took a decision to steer away from such 'paper' production oriented research.

The big problem with this kind of 'paper' production research is that, most times, it is out of touch with real-world-software. So many academic conferences are around that getting such an out-of-touch-with-real-world-software paper published is no big deal. Now I am not saying that such  papers have false information in it - No, not at all. They are certainly valid within a very-small-prototype world. The question is whether the approach used in the very-small-prototype world makes sense to be considered in real-world-software. Most readers of such papers would have such questions and may just note the approach used in the paper. Instead, if academic CS research is able to combine research with development in some small way then academic CS papers would have a lot more value. Just imagine such academic papers having a reference to its open source software code + data download link. A reader who is interested in the approach can just download the software + data, and if he likes it, can even consider to do further research on top of this software + data.

I think Indian CS academia should carefully study Google's Hybrid Research + Engineering model and see if it can pick up certain practices of Google and adapt it for use in Indian CS academia.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

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