Highlights from the Comments on Organizing Research

See also No Revival for the Industrial Research Lab, Notes on Adam Marblestone’s Focused Research Organizations, and Is There a Translational Research Gap?.

More anecdotally, see Bus Factor 1, The Murder of Wilbur Wright and Highlights from the Emails on Golden Handcuffs.

All emphasis mine, some of these are several comments or emails grafted together, with minor omissions. Commentary at the bottom.

Adam Marblestone

One comment is actually I agree a lot of effort is going to “bridging the valley of death”.

I actually think FROs have a major, perhaps primary, purpose outside of that “translational” aspect. Even to develop tools for basic research, or public good — things that are never going to “graduate” to become startups —you may need to structure some efforts in a more “fast and focused”, team based, systems engineering heavy way than academia allows. Example: faster cheaper better brain mapping… not a startup, but needs a systems-focused non-academic team to get it up and running.

Thus, the Day One article which mentions “basic research” challenges that require FROs rather than “valley of death” may be a better motivation. The Twitter reply to Sarah is actually a kind of perversion of the main idea, therefore, massaging it to be more about valley of death per se than it need be.

…Picking the right problems is key, as is having metrics of progress but without letting that over determine the effort / prevent any pivoting on the way to the goal.

Many problems won’t be a good fit for them.

So yeah, I appreciate your pointing out that this is just one experiment that needs to be matched to specific rare problems that fit it, and not meant to replace the whole system.

That said, I think some of the problems they address — given that academia and startups are big enterprises already — could be “long poles in the tent” in some areas. In other words our R&D system is only as strong as the weakest element and if FROs can solve for some rare weak elements that could have a big impact overall.

Also there can be a notion of users, just scientific users not always VC grade giant commercial markets

Sarah Constantin

I think a handful of funds existing is good validation of the idea rather than evidence it’s already overdone. The gap is probably big even if these guys are doing everything right.

…btw, I should just say, I try a little to be right on Twitter, but I’ve never been interested in doing social science as an intellectual endeavor.  I’m glad some people are doing it, but I take my verbal activity way less seriously than that.

Nathan Taylor

Bell Labs was created as a defense against monopoly due to Bell risk of antitrust enforcement. As a public utility getting monopoly profits, Bell viewed itself as a public institution which could invest in basic R&D which might not impact the bottom line.  The clear parallel here is Google Lab moonshots. Again, a tech monopoly wants to showcase its virtues, and use its monopoly profits to invest in blue sky work. And Sun and XEROX PARC, just like Bell Labs, never really got return for their most important inventions. They became public goods, which new tech companies picked up and ran with. Or, given that basic research is so hard, the most common result is something like google glasses.

My point here is that Industrial Research Labs which we (historically) love are the product of tech monopolies tossing money around to make themselves feel good about their public service. And avoid risk of antitrust. They should arguably be funded by the company as a marketing expense. The people hired of course are good and sometimes produce incredible results.  But the benefits go to other companies than the ones who did the research. To use Bell Labs as a model we want to recreate without realizing it’s a product of monopoly profits, which had very little chance of benefiting the funding company itself, is to misunderstand what happened.

Bell Labs wasn’t murdered. It was a quirky exception vanity project which randomly produced large public benefits, while be of little or no use to Bell itself. It was never going to survive long, because it was a weird, quirky contingent exception. Trying to make more Bells Labs is a bad idea, because it’s not reproducible. Of course I may be wrong about this position about corporate research labs. And I’m exaggerating a bit to make the point. But I think this view is broadly defensible.

Where does that leave us? I think government funding for prizes (longitude and watches), or guaranteeing payment if tech pays off (mRNA vaccines) is a very sustainable way to go to push tech forward. Government leadership on picking where to invest, with large amounts of money going to companies, who only get paid if what they tried works. Otherwise the companies get nothing.

The result we want is technology with large public goods benefits. Well done government funding is a far better aligned way to create tech public goods than corporations.

Adam’s “tent” metaphor is a useful alternative to thinking about one-dimensional gaps. Some technologies (including mRNA vaccines) require support over a path across the research space, so it’s not enough to have each individual discovery funding if you cannot do the “systems building” Adam talks about.

Sarah is maybe right about translational research, though given that Breakout Labs is a for-profit VC and 11 years old, I would expect it to scale up if the returns are actually good. Financial returns are an imperfect proxy for scientific ones, and as mentioned last time, 11 years might not be enough time to find out if the project was a success.

Nathan makes some good points, though I’m not sure Bell Labs was as quirky as he imagines. As I understand it, the lab was quite successful for multiple decades. At the very least, around 1940-1970.

As aggravating as it can be to see corporations waste money on vanity projects, there are reasons to avoid too much government funding, even when it’s well directed.

There’s some story in which:

  • Bell Labs hires the world’s brightest minds, they do the best science anyone has ever done
  • The government steps in and scales up the university system
  • Universities now have the world’s brightest minds
  • Universities are only accountable to bureaucratic funding, they become arbitrarily corrupt
  • Meanwhile, it’s hard to launch a new private lab because the talent is tied up, and universities are already pumping out incremental research
  • We end up in a stable equilibrium with no mechanism to fund “transformative research

This is at least somewhat true, but I don’t know if it’s the most important truth.

I don’t know if “transformative research” is the right thing to aim for, if it is a thing at all, or if it’s even underfunded. Certainly, the NSF is eager to fund transformative research, whatever it is, so maybe it’s all fine.

On the other hand, I still get emails from people who say they stayed at Google for the paycheck, stability and prestige, even though they didn’t believe in the work. So certainly there is something wrong here, and some human talent is being squandered.

As a side note, this all leaves me with even less interest in Twitter. I thought the original thread was interesting and provocative, but found it less important the more I learned on my own. After contacting the people involved, Adam admits “The Twitter reply to Sarah is actually a kind of perversion of the main idea, therefore, massaging it to be more about valley of death per se than it need be.” and Sarah writes “I try a little to be right on Twitter, but I’ve never been interested in doing social science as an intellectual endeavor.  I’m glad some people are doing it, but I take my verbal activity way less seriously than that.”

Again, this is no one’s fault. Adam and Sarah are two of the smartest people I know, and neither is acting poorly here. They’re just doing what you’re supposed to do, which is to be relevant and engaging.

And still, neither of their stated aims is to use Twitter as a place for substantive and rigorous discourse. You may think that’s what you’re reading, but you are wrong. At best, it is a place to post links to other places.