Bob Gallager on Shannon’s tips for research

One of the classes I enjoyed the most in undergrad was Bob Gallager’s digital communications class, 6.450. I was reminded of what an engaging lecturer he was yesterday when I attended the Bell Labs Shannon Celebration yesterday. Unfortunately, it being the last week of the semester, I could not attend today’s more technical talks. Gallager gave a nice concise summary of what he learned from Shannon about how to do good theory work:

  1. Simplify the problem
  2. Relate it to other problems
  3. Restate the problem in as many ways as possible
  4. Break the problem into pieces
  5. Avoid getting locked into thinking ruts
  6. Generalize

As he said, “it’s a process of doing research… each one [step] gives you a little insight.” It’s tempting, as a theorist, to claim that at the end of this process you’ve solved the “fundamental” problem, but Gallager admonished us to remember that the first step is to simplify, often dramatically. As Alfred North Whitehead said, we should “seek simplicity and distrust it.”

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LabTV, research stories, and video outreach

My lab was visited by Charlie Chalkin a few weeks ago. He was here to interview me and various students on our experiences in research for LabTV. LabTV was founded by Jay Walker and the NIH director Dr. Francis Collins with the aim of profiling NIH-funded researchers (as I now am). It was a great opportunity and a really short informal process, and I guess I can get some more hits from YouTube on the LabTV channel.

This experience got me thinking about how hard it is to connect with students at times. In particular, I think that many students don’t really see the process of how we got to where we are as their professors. Unless they have an academic in the family and also paid attention to their life story, they seem a bit mystified by it all. Obviously pop culture has a lot to do with this — movie and TV depictions of the professoriat are pretty far from reality. I have heard, however, from Ram Rajagopal that San Andreas has pretty much the most amazing interactions between professors and grad students. Heroism — that’s what we want.

But this experience got me thinking that departments might benefit from having short 2 minute profiles of their faculty members, but not from the technical achievements view. Instead, let them talk about what got them interested in the problems they are interested in, how they ended up in this position, and why they like the job. The answers may be surprising, but I think students might see a different side than they get in the lecture hall.

Ethical questions in research funding: the case of ethics centers

I read a piece in Inside Higher Ed today on the ethics of accepting funds from different sources. In engineering, this is certainly an important issue, but the article focused Cynthia Jones, an ethics professor at UT-Pan American who directs the PACE ethics center. Jones had this stunningly ignorant thing to say about Department of Defense funding:

“What the hell are we going to use lasers for except to kill people?” Jones said. “But scientists get cut the slack.”

I’m flabbergasted that someone who works on philosophy applied to a technological field, namely biomedical ethics, believes that the only use of lasers is to kill people. Perhaps she thinks that using lasers in surgery is unethical. Or, more likely, she is unaware of how basic research in science is actually funded in this country.

Certainly, there’s been a definite shift over time in how defense-related agencies have targeted their funds — they fund much less basic research (or basic applied research) and have focused more on deliverables and technologies that more directly support combat, future warriors, and the like. This presents important ethical questions for researchers who may oppose the use of military force (or how it has been used recently) but who are interested in problems that could be “spun” towards satisfying these new objectives from DARPA, ARO, ONR, and AFOSR. Likewise, there are difficult questions about the line between independent research and consulting work for companies who may fund your graduate students. Drawing sharp distinctions in these situations is hard — everybody has their own comfort zone.

Jones wrote an article on “Dirty Money” that tries to develop rules for when money is tainted and when it is not. She comes up with a checklist at the end of the article that says funds should not be accepted if they

1- are illegal or that operate illegally in one’s country, or when the funding violates a generally accepted doctrine signed by one’s country (keeping in mind there is sometimes a distinction between legally acceptable and morally acceptable); or
2- originate from a donor who adds controls that would conflict with the explicit or implicit goals of the project to be funded or that would conflict with the proper functioning of the project or the profession’s ethical guidelines.

This, she says, is “the moral minimum.” This framing (and the problem in general of funding centers) that she addresses sidesteps the ethical questions around research that is funded by writing proposals, and indeed the question of soliciting funds. Even in the world of charitable giving, the idea that funders wander through the desert with bags of money searching for fundees seems odd. I think the more difficult ethical quandary is that of solicitation. At a “moral minimum” the fundee has to think about these questions, but I think point 2 needs a lot more unpacking because of the chicken-and-egg question of matching proposed research to program goals.

I don’t want to sound so super-negative! I think it’s great that someone is looking at the ethics of the economics of how we fund research. It’s just that there’s a whole murkier lake beyond the murky pond of funding centers, and the moral issues of science/engineering funding are not nearly as simple as Jones’s remark indicates.