Inna Vishik: Academia and Industry

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“The way it actually works is that you have an idea in mind, and science throws something in your direction and you have to pivot.”

Between the university and the corporate world there are as many tensions as there are synergies.

Inna Vishik is a physicist finishing up her postdoc at MIT. Among other things, she writes about how research priorities within academia differ from those within a corporation.

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“In some ways academic research is fundamentally different from industrial research. The main difference is the degree of openness. In industry, there are trade secrets. In the current dichotomy between academia and industry, where they are fairly separate–they sort of have distinct roles.”

“This is not the only workable paradigm. In the early part of the twentieth century, there was more basic research happening within industry, within Bell Labs for example.”

“Another model is private foundations. That is kind of an intermediate model that is closer to academic research, but I guess the distinction is where the money comes from and how the institution arises.”

“I study exotic materials. The way people decide to study a new exotic material is that a new one gets discovered randomly, or theorized. ”

“Everything I do would not be done in industry. The fact that it doesn’t have applications in a five year or twenty year horizon is a problem. The way it actually works is that you have an idea in mind, and science throws something in your direction and you have to pivot. I don’t think that would fly in a situation where an end product is required.”

What are the fundamental problems in academia, whether or not they could be fixed?

“There are scientific problems and there are personnel problems. On the scientific side, funding is often very trend-driven. There is more funding for the latest, hottest topics. It is important to push the boundaries of science and be open to new things, but at the same time there are unsolved things in the older topics.” When funding leaves one area, sometimes it never comes back.

“The personnel problem is bigger. The job market is sort of like professional sports. There might be one or two job openings, and you might need to go anywhere in the country where there are those jobs. That was great back in the day when scientists had portable spouses, but in modern times that isn’t a reality. Furthermore, in America, what we have seen in the past century is an increasing urbanization. More people live in cities, but universities are often in little podunk towns.”

Bill Gates is incentivizing publications to tear down their paywalls. Science Exchange allows you to offload experiments to a marketplace.  Will these types of developments affect how research is conducted going forward?

“Paywalls are a big deal. There was a move in congress recently that if you receive grant money, your publications must be open to the public. Open access seems like a good idea and potentially it is, but there are some things to keep in mind.”

“Most publications are very arcane. They are directed to a specific group of people. How many people would be reading these? Most people would rather read journalism, or a more digestible piece written by the scientists [who are publishing in the paywalled journal].”

“If all of the publications were free, it would come down to the authors, or the scientists to get things published. When pushing for open access, people need to think about the negative consequences that might have on the authors of the papers, and weigh that against the fact that most people would not read these scientific journals.”

“Crowdfunding of science is another idea that sounds great–if you are not in science. How much can you actually earn in a Kickstarter campaign, especially for something esoteric? A couple thousand dollars?”

“It’s similar to people who have educational startups and are trying to disrupt the education system without consulting with teachers, and seeing what’s feasible in that space. The change may have to come from within.”

According to Steven Weinberg, particle accelerators incubate and stimulate technology as much as war does.  Inna expressed skepticism that this is true, but gave the quote some credibility.

“Throughout history we have seen that war pushes technology in every single conflict. But who wants to wish for more war? The best thing you can hope for is some concerted effort among thousands of scientists to solve difficult science and engineering problems. It might not yield the same degree of positive returns, but it has almost zero negative consequences.”

What causes scientists to leave academia for industry?

“The calculation is more about the relative quality of positions, where quality is measured by all sorts of metrics–freedom, income, family life.”

“For me personally it’s almost exclusively about quality of position I can get hired for, as well as geography. Within academia, there is a sort of inaccurate idea that people leave mostly for the money. That’s not necessarily true. It’s a host of personal reasons.”

Inna also gave her take on why Quora is so useful.

“Information is fundamentally a social construct. To qualify as information, someone needs to share it one way or another. In that sense, the idea that someone will read what I write and be able to understand a concept better is very empowering. This connection between information and social is one of the reasons why Quora works so well.”

In closing, Inna discussed a problem that plagues both academia and industry.

“There’s a big discussion of women in STEM. Within academic Physics, one of the biggest problems is how much it is talked about. It has a negative impact on how women perceive the field. Whenever I tell a female I am a physicist, they say ‘wow, there are not a lot of women there.’ That’s all they have heard about the field, and it really colors how they think about entering it.”

“Implicitly within that, there is some message that women are not as good for some biological reasons.”