Inverted Research Funding

Most people believe that scientists first perform basic (“fundamental”) research and then perform applied research. Basic research delivers the fundamental insights that then get detailed and refined as they hit reality in applied research. Along with this comes the request that basic research funding should be provided by the country (because few companies would ever pay for it) before industry kicks in and supports applied research. Nothing could be further from the situation in my engineering process research.

First as a curiosity, and then as a pattern, I observed how I go about one-person research projects and funding them. I have found it much easier to approach industry with a relevant research question and get funding for it when the question is not fully vetted yet. As long as there are clear deliverables that make sense to industry, I can find funders for the research. These deliverables are often qualitative and exploratory in nature as industry wants advice and then relies on human intelligence to carry it further. Researchers, however, can use this exploratory research to refine their research question and write a grant proposal that suggests to turn the insights, typically a proposed theory, into a validated one. This only makes sense: In engineering, industry is usually not willing to pay for controlled experiments or the like as the necessarily reductive nature of such methods is of little interest in the mostly qualitative world of engineering processes.

Please note that I’m talking about software engineering processes. One might think that there is no basic research in engineering processes, but I would obviously disagree. I suspect it is the nature of this domain that groundbreaking research can only be performed in the field where the action is.

Thus, in my line of research the exciting discovery is often in the front parts of the research process performed with industry. Once we know what we are looking for and are trying to validate it, we reach more streamlined action and can use public funding for that. In this approach, the industry funded research gives us the time, money, and perspective to write a public grant proposal for its validation. Which is to say, public funding follows industry funding rather than the other way around. This turns the common wisdom of basic public research before applied industry research on its head.

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