July 8, 2011

Leveraging collaborative projects to produce better academic research

Opposing industrial and academic research worlds is a classic discussion. Academics have recently been suspected to address unmotivated problems because they do not manipulate the technologies that are at the core of their research activities. The importance of having an "industrial motivation" behind an academic research is reflected by a statistic: papers authored by at least one industrial researcher represent approximately half of accepted papers in the best conferences in operating systems (15 out of 32 for OSDI'11) and networking (16 out of 32 for Sigcomm'11). These papers monopolize the technical sessions related to new trends, especially datacenter and production network for OSDI, cloud computing and user measurement for Sigcomm.

In these applied science areas, the best conferences accept papers addressing industry-relevant problems if and only if (i) authors demonstrate the timeliness and relevance of the problem, and (ii) authors carefully evaluate their proposed solutions.
  • problem motivation: a scientist who is only reading papers about a technology can hardly formulate a relevant important problem related to this technology. In order to have an accurate view of the problems faced by companies, a first idea is to spend time there as a visiting researcher, as it is promoted in Google. Another idea is to work with industrials in projects like  FP7 STREP project. I mean, actually work together, and not pretend working together.
  • solution evaluation: a NS2 simulation is no longer enough for a Sigcomm paper. Nowadays, some large-scale infrastructures give free access to scientists (for example Open Cirrus for a large data-center, Planet Lab for an Internet-scale network, Grid 5000 for a grid, Imagin'Lab for a 4G/LTE cellular network). There is no excuse to not test solutions over real infrastructures. However, the access to infrastructure is not sufficient, evaluations should also be based on realistic user patterns. Author of the excellent Hints and tips for Sigcomm authors claims "use realistic traffic models"! Besides using available real traces (for example the amazing network traces from Caida), the idea is again to leverage on a project collaboration with industrials that are able either to deploy a prototype on real clients, or to provide exclusive traces of their real clients.
Hence, short-term focused collaborative projects are ideal if one wants to write well-motivated well-evaluated industry-relevant papers. But, in this case, why have I never been in position to submit a competitive paper to Sigcomm although I participated in many collaborative projects? Probably because:
  • some of my industrial partners were not really industrial. In large companies, R&D labs are frequently disconnected from the real operational teams, so researchers in these labs are unable to provide substantiated arguments about the criticality of the project, to successfully deploy a prototype, and even to obtain traces from their real clients.
  • in a consortium, every partner has its own agenda. Receiving fundings while minimizing efforts may be the only point all partners agree. I rarely feel that all partners share a strong commitment to make the project actually work. More frequently, the funding acceptance is considered as the final positive outcome, the project itself being only a pain.
  • the project work-plan does not include the writing of a scientific paper. Scientific production is usually seen as a dissemination activity, under the responsibility of an academic partner, although writing a top-class paper requires a precise planning of the contributions of every partner (including milestones and deliverables).
Now that I understand why successful collaborative projects are critical and why my recent projects have (relatively) failed, I hope I will be able to leverage collaboration with industrials to do better research (a.k.a. write better papers).

July 4, 2011

My (disappointing) experience of attending a large conference

Last month, I attended ICC at Kyoto. ICC is the kind of large-scale academic conference, where more than 1,400 people are expected to meet and collaborate for the sake of networking science. In the meantime, several other major conferences held in the so-called Federated Conferences at San Jose, which gathered approximately the same number of researchers. Several academic scientists have already reported their enthusiasm about such big events (or raised many positive thoughts).

On my side, my experience was fairly negative. The technical and scientific discussions were rare, mostly because the conference scope is so large that the probability to chat with people sharing your scientific concerns is low. Actually, I have wondered what I was doing there during three quarters of conference time. Finally, I saw three reasons to attend big academic events:

  • awarding scientists: I think that scientists have been excellent students, that their commitment to excellence has again risen once they embrace an academic career, and that they are still not paid accordingly. Scientists do not receive bonuses in cash, however they frequently travel in wonderful places, with great banquet and rooms in palace. Conferencing is an award, which can be typically offered to a worthy PhD student. Similarly, professors do not hesitate to self-award with a full paid one-week conference (grants and funding allow traveling a lot, lets enjoy it). For those who like big hotels and international cities, big conferences are perfect.
  • meeting people from your local community: in a crowded amazingly large banquet, people first tend to cluster through languages or institutions. French chat with French, Chinese with Chinese, and members from University X with other members from University X. These "local cluster conversations" are easy to start (what plane did you take, how bad is the food in your hotel, how jetlagged are you, etc.). These local cluster conversations have at least one benefit: you have time to chat with people who you are used to meeting in local events without any chance to really discuss with. Therefore, a meeting in Japan is the place where you enhance your social network with people that live at less than 200 kilometers from your office, which is 10,000 kilometers away from Japan.
  • grenouilling during hallway conversations: it seems that the best translation of grenouiller is to plot.  In most multi-track conferences, many people prefer to stay in the lobby and do not attend talks. They are not wrong, because many scientific talks are actually bad, and I don't think that a series of talks is the best way to foster scientific conversations. However I am afraid that conversations in the lobby are not worth a trip of thousands of kilometers neither. A large part of conversations I heard or participated was related to research administration: what will be the next event-to-attend, am I in the Program Committee of next big event, what are the latest news about the next national funding call, where could my post-doc find a decent position, if I invite you in my steering committee, would you include me in your steering committee, what are the latest transfers in the academic world, etc.
Probably because I expected some scientific enlightenments from meeting so many smart people, I have been disappointed. In particular, I definitely disagree with the scientists who argue for more maxi conferences. Next month, I will attend Sigcomm, which is a single-track reasonably-crowded (500 people) conference. Lets see if middle-size conferences are worth degrading my carbon footprint.