On Academia, Courage, and Innovation

Aug 3, 2013


Academia should be the place where every now and then we should do cool and crazy stuff.

This is the place where we should be working on things that nobody did before. Things like a search engine for the entire web. Things like programming languages for kids. Things like flying quad-copters that play badminton. Tools that completely revolutionise the way people learn. Things that the industry and industrial research can’t be working on since they don’t necessarily bring money immediately. 

Besides academia, I also had the chance to work in industry and industrial research. In industry you get the chance of working on products that will immediately serve the people but at the price of very rigid constraints on your creativity. You innovate only in the measure in which it helps the bottom line.

Industrial research is better. If you’re lucky enough to be working for one of the large corporations that has a research department you might have more freedom to innovate. But you will still have to make sure that your work will eventually serve the company.

Academia is the place where you have the freedom to push the boundary without caring about the immediate profit. This is the place where we have the least constraints from stakeholders and investors. Sure, when not driven by immediate demand, one risks working on something that will not be immediately useful… but this is one of the ways in which we can take the long view, and work on things that nobody else works on because they are not immediately profitable. 

Now it is true, this might be considered a bit of a naive approach. There are constraints in academia too. Often one is hired to work on a project. And also often, one has to think about his career. I remember a great discussion with an inspiring person from our community who was saying: “I can’t let my students risk their career. They have to publish, and make sure that they are building a name in the community and investing in their future.” And this is true, in the measure in which each of these people wants a career in academia. And in the measure in which the career is guaranteed by working alongside with the other researchers on the same problems. 

And maybe, when one is a PhD student he can’t have too many projects on which he would be working. In fact, that is the great thing about being a PhD students: working on one project, and having the chance to focus.

On the other hand, when one is a bit more senior, it would be good that he distributes his efforts in some safe projects but also invests time in some more courageous projects, some projects that might fail, but which when they succeed, would have a really great impact. 

So ask yourself, what’s your brave, courageous, innovative project. And next time you see me, ask me the same question :)