Robert Harper writes in: Believing in Computer Science:
It’s not every day that I can say that I agree with Bertrand Meyer, but today is an exception. Meyer has written an opinion piece in the current issue of C.ACM about science funding that I think is worth amplying. His main point is that funding agencies, principally the NSF and the ERC, are constantly pushing for “revolutionary” research, at the expense of “evolutionary” research. Yet we all (including the funding agencies) know full well that, in almost every case, real progress is made by making seemingly small advances on what is already known, and that whether a body of research is revolutionary or not can only be assessed with considerable hindsight. Meyer cites the example of Hoare’s formulation of his logic of programs, which was at the time a relatively small increment on Floyd’s method for proving properties of programs. For all his brilliance, Hoare didn’t just invent this stuff out of thin air, he built on and improved upon the work that had gone before, as of course have hundreds of others built on his in turn. This all goes without saying, or ought to, but as Meyer points out, we computer scientists are constantly bombarded with direct and indirect exhortations to abandon all that has gone before, and to make promises that no one can honestly keep.
Meyer’s rallying cry is for incrementalism. It’s a tough row to hoe. Who could possibly argue against fostering earth-shattering research that breaks new ground and summarily refutes all that has gone before? And who could possibly defend work that is obviously just another slice of the same salami, perhaps with a bit of mustard this time? And yet what he says is obviously true. Funding agencies routinely beg the very question under consideration by stipulating a priori that there is something wrong with a field, and that an entirely new approach is required. With all due respect to the people involved, I would say that calls such as these are both ill-informed and outrageously arrogant.
What Harper and Meyer write is true, but misses a critical point.
To illustrate: What do you think would happen if one or more of the “impossible” funding proposals succeeded?
Consider the funding agency and its staff. If even one of its perennial funding requests were to succeed, what would it replace it with for next time? Can’t have a funding apparatus, with clerks, rule books, procedures, judges, etc., without some problem to be addressed. Solving any sufficiently large problem would be a nightmare for a funding agency.
On the par with the March of Dimes solving the problem of polio. It had the choice of finding a new mission or dissolving. Can you imagine a funding agency presented with that choice?
CS funding agencies avoid that dilemma by funding research that by definition is very unlikely to succeed.
And what of the grant seekers?
What if they can only accept graduate students who can solve nearly impossible CS problems? Would not have a very large department with that as a limitation. And consequently very small budgets, limited publication venues, conferences, etc.
I completely agree with Harper and Meyers but CS departments should start teaching grant seeking/funding as a CS activity.
Perhaps even a Masters of CS/Grants&Funding? (There may be one already, check your local course catalog.)
“Real” CS will proceed incrementally, but then it always has.
I retained the link in Robert’s post but you should forward, Long Live Incremental Research!, http://cacm.acm.org/blogs/blog-cacm/109579-long-live-incremental-research/fulltext, so your non-ACM friends can enjoy the Meyer’s post.