Manifesto for impact in applied science – the second side of the medal

For years, we are discussing the role of academia and industry regarding research and education and often, we are discussing whether industry and academia are drifting apart and to which extent we can (or should) bring both worlds closer together.

On this occasion, I am also glad that Bran Selic gave a talk this week at our research group about aspects he missed in the university curriculum to prepare students more for “real world working environments” — clearly taking a practitioners perspective. We agreed that industry and academia are drifting apart and openly discussed several aspects, ranging from needs like increasing the level of complexity in the used teaching examples, or the need to prepare students to give presentations; all being things that can be discussed “without harm” and where we can surely point the fingers at each other and discuss whose responsibility it remains to prepare students for respective fields and related aspects in the end.

To make things clear, I share the view of many that the role of education is not to teach things only if they have immediate practical value. I see our responsibility to prepare students to be open minded, to be able to objectively explore problem domains, to critically reflect on problems and ways of solving those problems, and not to simply apply method X to a problem Y. As Richard Paige once pointed out, our responsibility is not to prepare students for their work live; for this, we have trainings. Our duty is to prepare students to change the world. Too dramatic? Maybe. But it makes an important point.

Still, I think we need to foster the discussions on this matter whereby I was very glad to see that participants of this years Requirements Engineering conference took first steps in fostering the discussion on this matter. In particular, I am referring to the manifesto for impact in applied science, provided by Martin Mahaux. To put things clearly into its context right from the beginning: while the manifesto refers to applied science, it addresses scientific research communities in general. And while I agree on many things written in this manifesto, especially the problems addressed in it (e.g. regarding the reviewing process), I am worried about the solutions proposed and the directions some communities seem to be willing to take. In short, the manifesto formulates 4 values “that scientific communities need to address now”, namely (quote):

  1. We value the Real World Benefits and Customer Focus more than H-Indexes and Acceptance Rates

  2. We value Novelty and Usefulness more than Validity and Truth

  3. We value Openness and Cross-fertilisation more than Silos and Specialisation

  4. We value Collaboration and Transparency more than Competition and Protection

The full version of the manifesto can be found here. Now, while I can agree on many aspects addressed by the manifesto, especially for the Requirements Engineering community that can be characterised as an interdisciplinary research area more than other software engineering fields, I am, at least, irritated by the second value. In fact, when I first saw this value, my first response was “They forgot sponsoring over academic integrity”. However, having a little more distance, we should first reflect on the intention and the problems addressed.

The reasoning behind “novelty and usefulness over validity and truth” is stated to be (quote):

People in the real world prefer something creative and not so validated than something old and useless perfectly validated. Scientific evaluators seem to think the opposite. Companies expect innovation, so publishing and discussing early ideas should be rewarded. Companies after all apply what they believe in, and their beliefs are made out of many ingredients, scientific validation being only one of them at best.

Aha. In fact, this is the actual idea behind workshops where researchers and practitioners are supposed to present work in progress (agreeing that reviewers often forget this aim). However, I’m still wondering what our role and responsibility, as researchers, is believed to be on this subject in general. The value I was taught during my academic career, the value I stick most to and which I see as the most valuable one among many, is still academic integrity and honesty over everything. And our academic integrity, or even the essence of every philosophical view we can take on science, is achieved by

  1. Accuracy and Rigour
  2. Validity (of the methods chosen to obtain scientific results, to interpret the results, and to evaluate the results)
  3. Scientific and/or Practical Impact

Scientific and practical impact need not necessarily to be the same as fundamental research is not necessarily driven by industrial (often very context-specific) short-term goals. Our goal is not solely to solve practical problems, but to understand them and aim at research endeavours having especially scientific value in itself. Formulating it a little bit in a more provocative manner: We are not consultants, but researchers. (I assume that the authors, whom I appreciate for taking this step to foster discussions in this area, intentionally formulated their values in such a provocative way.)

I am very interested, at least, to see which direction this discussion takes in the end. Also, I am very interested in getting to know your views on that.