Thursday, July 7, 2016

Outward Thinking for Our Research Community

In our research community, besides teaching duties, university researchers commonly focus on securing funding resources to support their research group's research activities, recruiting and advising students along with collaborating with external (academic or industrial) collaborators to conduct research, and contributing professional services within the research community such as ACM SIGSOFT and IEEE TCSE along with their sponsored or associated journals or conferences. While sharing many of these focuses, industrial-lab researchers typically do not need to teach, secure external funding resources, or advise students to conduct research (except supervising summer-intern students during summer time). These preceding activities are mostly "inward facing" (e.g., within the research community): competing funding resources within the research community, publishing and presenting inward-facing research to serve the audience within the research community, conducting professional services within the research community, etc.

A couple of years ago, John Regehr (U. Utah) discussed "Inward vs. Outward Facing Research". When discussing why researchers have a tendency to face inward, he stated "This is natural: we know more about our research’s internal workings than anyone else, we find it fascinating (or else we wouldn’t be doing it), we invent some new terminology and notation that we like and want to show off, etc. — in short, we get caught up in the internal issues that we spend most of our time thinking about."

However, the research community (either broadly in computing or specifically in a research area such as software engineering) can be impacted by the broad ecosystem that the research community lives in. For example, a government funding agency needs to allocate total funding across different research areas; a university (college or department) or industrial research lab needs to allocate the total head count for new hires across different research areas; a student applying for graduate schools needs to decide on what research area he or she would like to apply for. Thus, it is important for the research community to sustain and further boost the importance, impact, and reputation of the research area perceived in the eyes of other computing research communities or in the broad society such as the industry and government. Only when we accomplish so, can the community as a whole grow better, e.g., attracting more resources such as funding allocation, faculty positions, industrial-research-lab positions, top student/junior-researcher talents, other communities' researchers to address our important problems.

In particular, besides the typical inward thinking that researchers in the research community already have, more outward thinking is needed for the research community to better grow in this broad ecosystem. In the broad computing community, there are quite some prominent researchers and other research areas with such strong outward thinking. For example, Ed Lazowska (U. Washington) "is widely viewed as the computer science research community's highest impact national leader and spokesperson." For the research area of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Eric Horvitz (Microsoft Research) has addressed "Rise of Concerns about AI: Reflections and Directions: research, leadership, and communication about AI futures". The ACM SIGAI Newsletter (the counterpart of our ACM SIGSOFT Notes) named as "AI Matters" includes its first-listed submission category "AI Impact": "Description of an AI system or method that has had a tangible impact on the world outside of the research community. These submissions are intended for dissemination to a general audience, and any technical content must be accessible to non-AI researchers."

In the research area of software engineering, there have been also various leading researchers with such strong outward thinking, playing important roles in the broad ecosystem. Although the research community has started paying attention to engaging and impacting the software industry or broadly practitioner community, the research community shall also put more eyesight on impact on and perception by other research communities in the computing community along with the broad society such as the industry and government.

Below I list some example activities towards such outward thinking for researchers in the research community to consider:
Please let me know if you have additional ideas for such outward thinking by sharing your suggestions here or submitting your writing to be considered for dissemination in the History and Impact column of the ACM SIGSOFT Notes!

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