October 30, 2012

Lessons learned at UWaterloo (2nd part): research organization

Here is the second post about my experience at University of Waterloo. After the ode to the co-operation education program, here is another positive observation related to research organization. All in one, I have the feeling that the time spent in meetings by researchers in North-America is four times less than their European counterparts. I wish statistics could support this claim. Why so? I identified at least two explanations.

Firstly the structures fundamentally differ between American and European research institutions. It might sound like a caricature, but Americans promote individual successes while Europeans build large corporations. A research department in an American university is an aggregation of independent researchers, who manage their own team of students and research fellows with their own budget, and who develop their own line of research. In Europe, senior researchers should gather into so-called research teams, which are expectedly consistent. European teams should define a strategy, share budgets and generate activity reports to justify they still deserve to exist. They are regularly challenged by numerous "administrative research managers", who are no longer researchers, but whose job is to "organize". Obviously, I think that the model where a department is like an incubator of entrepreneurial researchers is the right model. American researchers focus on their team, spend time on their own activities and are committed to succeed in academy by any mean. European researchers waste their time in meetings and in bureaucratic activities. Furthermore, the former model enables paradoxically better collaborations among researchers because these spontaneous collaborations are not based on any explicit agreement.

Secondly, research funding target individuals, not collaboration. Europe is crazy about "calls for collaborative projects". Our beloved European funders seem convinced that the only way to do research is to make people work together on a well-defined topic. European companies interested in academic research contribute to research through collaboration in these projects. I will again exaggerate a bit, but collaborative projects are not the norm in America. Researchers get small amounts of money from companies through direct grants, which favor transient, short, focused cooperation. And they also receive individual grants from their public funding agencies. Such model does not force researchers to waste a significant amount of time at collective writing, synchronization meetings and expense justification. Ask American researchers who experienced European projects if they want to do it again. Their answers are likely to be harsh about this crazy administrative nightmare.

I found this research organization far more efficient since it allows researcher to focus on their core activities. And I am afraid that the situation gets especially worse in France because I see a growing number of "administrative managers" who gravitate around the academic world. They are expected to be "interface" between researchers and funders, but their job (to organize researchers and to set up "calls for projects") actually interfere with researchers.

October 19, 2012

Lessons learned at UWaterloo (1st part): the Co-operative Education program

I spent one year at University of Waterloo in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department. I will try to extract from this fruitful experience a small set of short lessons. Here is the first one, an ode to the so-called Co-operative Education system.

What Waterloo calls a co-operative education system is a dual education system, which combines academic studies and professional works. We also have such program at Telecom Bretagne (my employer), see this link (only in french). All undergraduate programs are "co-op" at Waterloo. According to rankings based on surveys, it works pretty well for them (#29 for Business Insiders).

In France, dual education system at the graduating level is not the most prestigious curriculum. The "royal way" consists of two harsh years focusing on abstract mathematical concepts, a success in a ultra-competitive exam, then three years in an engineering schools at socializing (i.e. partying) and specializing. Students enrolled in dual education system are not considered as the best because they have not demonstrated outstanding scholar skills at the ultra-competitive exam. I already expressed serious concerns about such curriculum in a modern (i.e. computer oriented) society.

On my side, if I had to hire one engineer in my research team or in a start-up, I would definitely hire a "dual education" engineer. As far as I can see at Telecom Bretagne and UWaterloo, students have a lighter scientific background on the fundamental areas. However, they just program well. And they just work well. I have to admit that, like probably most companies, I value "programming well and working well" far higher than "having a strong background on fundamental scientific areas".

Dual education is an efficient way to teach software programming and project management, since, in general:
  • Teachers don't code. You can't count on them to learn programming tricks.
  • Teachers can't catch up all new technologies. Nobody is an expert in MapReduce, Ajax, and ObjectiveC at the same time. You can't expect that from teachers neither.
During academic terms, teachers can focus on the fundamental of programming and they can skip the courses about languages and technologies. During their terms spent in companies, students can discover the latest technologies and code with professionals. Good match, ins't it?