Still, the last reviews for a grant we didn't get contained just the stupidest comment, I really have to share it, because it just frightens me. I'm used to reviews I don't agree with -- the typical excuse not to fund a theory grant being, "The proposal doesn't explain how it will solve the proposed problems," while if I already knew how to solve the proposed problem, I'd have written the paper already -- but again, this goes beyond that. If this was just an excuse to not fund the proposal -- because the NSF for some reason never says "We only have money for the top 10% this year, and I'm afraid there are some better proposals," but instead has to have a reason -- that's fine, but I hope it's not a real reason.
This was a CDI proposal (so apologies to my co-authors, who do not necessarily share my opinions). The primary theme was mechanism design, but we focused on network formation and ad auctions as examples. One reviewer wrote:
[ad placement] is a very active research area for corporate research labs at places such as Yahoo and Google. Given the vast resources that are being invested at these corporate labs (that have hired top economists and computer scientists) and that have direct access to logs documenting advertiser and user behavior, it is unclear how much of a contribution an academic team can make here.One review might be forgivable. The panel summary listed the following as a weakness:
- There were also questions regarding how this willLet's ignore that the PIs all have relationships with industry, that ad auctions was just an example (of pretty wide interest right now), and that (I had thought) working on problems of interest to industry is, generally, a good thing.
compete with much larger-scale multidisciplinary
efforts (CS-economics) of similar kind in
industry (Google, Yahoo!, MS, etc.).
With this kind of thinking, there's no way a couple of graduate students from Stanford (or, more academically, a future well-known Cornell professor) should have been working on a silly thing like "search engine algorithms", since Altavista was already out there leading the way. (That's my #1 big example, fill in your own.)
Is "industry will do it better than you could" really a good reason not to pursue (or fund) a research topic? How many research areas would that really preclude? I'd assume we should also stop funding research in operating systems, compilers, and even computer security based on that comment, but oddly, I don't see a rush to cancel programs in those areas. Seriously, anonymous reviewer, if you actually meant that, congratulations, you've truly scared me about the future of NSF-sponsored research.
As an addendum, some comments from Harvard colleagues:
1. Where does the reviewer think the people who are going to go work for Google/Yahoo/Microsoft will be coming from?
2. This was the kind of thinking that led Harvard (a CS powerhouse post-WW II) to decide to drop computer science decades ago. IBM was doing it, no need to have a department doing research in the area. It took a while to recover from that decision....
3. That kind of comment is common for chip/architecture research. "Isn't Intel doing that already? How can you possibly contribute?" [I have increased empathy for architecture people.]