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Weekly Column

Let's Get Small: Maybe the Best Place to do Basic Research is in Bob's Garage

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

How could I have been so stupid? In a series of columns that some readers have found insightful and others tedious, we've spent three weeks covering the decline in basic research, the crisis in science, and the problems that occur when professional managers replace technical founders of companies. And the entire time I have been looking at these topics the wrong way. My view has been too conventional, readers say. They point out correctly that I have been viewing these topics as they are handled in traditional enterprises. I have been ignoring the very technologies I tend to trumpet on this page. Maybe what's declining is not research or science, but the traditional outfits that do those things. Maybe science is thriving, but in a different form than I have been willing to consider.

In the virtual scientific enterprise, it seems, life is good.

"You are forgetting one thing," wrote Eur Van Andel, from the Netherlands. "It used to be impossible to do basic research if you were a small company. Now, when everybody has an unbelievably large encyclopedia at hand that is updated every second and the means to transfer huge amounts information instantly, basic research is done by small companies. I know, because I am such a small company."

Eur does research in heat transfer and thermodynamics aimed at storing heat in groundwater in the summer to warm Holland's greenhouses in the winter. It's a noble goal since those greenhouses consume five percent of the Netherlqands' total energy budget, which is a heck of a lot of tomatoes. (Eur's five person operation can be reached through one of the links in Links of the Week.)

Though what Eur is doing sounds more to me like applied research, he still makes a very good point. Most of the needs of basic research can be accommodated today by the virtual enterprise, making it possible for small companies or even individuals to do significant work that fits in a greater body of knowledge. This is the essence of Open Source development projects, where a dozen or a hundred people around the world work together quite well, thank you. Science only needs big bucks to build expensive gizmos, but we have spent the past 30 years developing computers to replace many physical experiments, so fewer expensive gizmos are required. So whether the effort is Open Source or not, many research groups are virtual today.

I should have realized this instantly, especially given my own work situation. Most of the people I work with every week here at I, Cringely, I have never even met, or I've met them once or twice since we started doing this in 1997. I couldn't even tell you what they look like. On another of my many jobs, there is a guy who edits my magazine column and we have never met, nor have we even spoken on the telephone, yet what we do purports to be real work. In the time we've been working together at one magazine, he's actually worked at three different publications, moved from New York to Chicago and back to New York, and today he runs an art gallery in Manhattan. I may be the only constant in his life.

The beauty of the virtual organization is best realized when it remains virtual. I get along very well with my co-workers — probably better than we might if we were all in the same office everyday. I can be a real pain in the butt in person, but through an e-mail relationship, people seem to tolerate me a little more. What's funny is that most stories about workers like me deal at some point with how such people are isolated from the office politics and need to come into the organization occasionally to better relate and push their careers. But that makes the mistake of seeing traditional brick and mortar organizations as the "real" company. I don't feel isolated because I don't work every day at PBS. I feel freed. I have no need to work there or even to visit. Let them come to me. I'll make lunch.

And so it is, Eur tells me, with basic research, where little companies can do real work, and it is all made possible by the Internet. But we have to take this concept even further. An essential aspect of research is publishing, typically in peer-reviewed journals. But look at those journals. They are creations of research as it has been long conducted in big companies and large universities. These journals are out of step with the needs of modern research in the virtual enterprise.

They are owned by big publishing companies, for one thing. They publish on paper in a tedious process that takes months. They cost a lot to subscribe to. In short, they are run like businesses. But why should they be? The faster knowledge can be disseminated the better. These journals should be on the Internet, not published on paper. They should be free or cost very little. And there should be thousands or tens of thousands of them, not just a few in every discipline.

Even the peer review process should be different. Why not do it like Slashdot, right out in the open for everyone to see? Think of it as the Cell Biology Smackdown.

Peer-reviewed research journals have practiced exclusion as their modi operandi. They exclude authors by limiting their publications to just a few papers. They exclude input and stifle innovation by limiting their peer reviewers to a small cadre of gray heads. They exclude potential readers by having subscription fees of hundreds of dollars per year, or being available only in the libraries of big research universities, which does nothing for the Genius of Smallville. They are holding back research.

It doesn't have to be this way. The Internet is a very cheap medium for small volume publishers. It is immediate and unlimited in capacity. Search engines can quickly help readers find what they need no matter how many journals there are. And a Slashdot-like peer review process — a process of first publish and then review — is both quicker and probably leads to greater insight.

Let's do it.

Though I may have been wrong about the course of basic research, I believe I was correct last week when I talked about how good companies can be destroyed by professional management. Of course, the MBAs came out en masse this week to defend their profession, and a number of people brought up examples — WordPerfect, Borland, and Ashton-Tate, specifically — where they said my claims didn't hold up. But far more readers shared stories of how this professional management phenomenon had worked in their old company — companies that almost invariably no longer exist.

Then, as a kind of coup de grace, along came Thomas Crook, a software developer turned PhD candidate who claimed that my professional management phenomenon was not only very real, but well known and even well researched!

Thomas wrote, "I'm currently writing my thesis, entitled 'Incongruence between suppliers and consumers of goods and services.' Many of the papers I've been reading in my literature review support the assertions you made in this weeks column."

"Here is a quote from Jeffrey S. Harrison and James O. Fiet, 'New CEOs pursue their own self-interests by sacrificing stakeholder value.' Journal of Business Ethics, Apr 1999: 'Short-term performance increases that are sometimes observed after CEO successions may be evidence of self-interested behavior. New CEOs may cut allocations to long-term investment areas such as research and development (R&D), capital equipment and pension funds in an effort to drive up short-term profits and secure their positions. However, such actions have unfavorable consequences for some stakeholders.'"

Though written in academic lingo, that sure sounds to me like the concept we explored here last week. Thomas sent along an Excel spreadsheet in which he not only listed a number of journal articles in this area of study, but even annotated them! (The spreadsheet is available for download under the Links of the Week, too.)

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