Sunday, December 9, 2012

Peripheral productivity

Recent revelations that the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), that was specifically set-up to jump start research in Saudi Arabia may be having some growing pains, demonstrate that research productivity is a complex phenomenon, not correlated with resources. We have seen this in large pharmaceutical and technology companies that turned in mediocre results when they were plush with cash.

What are the primary causes of high research productivity? Certain academic institutions in the US have shown sustained levels of highly valuable research output over long periods of time. Although these institutions have been resource rich, it does not appear to have been a determining factor. People matter but of course many other educational institutions have had access to an equal number of high quality researchers. One factor that differentiates institutions, companies and organizations is their ability to pursue a diverse portfolio of “peripheral research,” topics others shun to be less interesting. So, it is not the fact that an organization has access to resources and high quality researchers that portends valuable output, it is rather what it chooses to do with those riches. Increasingly, most valuable research occurs at the boundaries of different areas – such as material science and energy, neuroscience and computer science, space travel and biology and economics and psychology. Research in such obscure intersections does not attract grants or focus – and those who pursue them do so at their own peril.

Research productivity cannot be bought, nor can it be extracted from processes that mingle resources, traditionalists and conventionalism. It requires a level of imagination that typically exists only in those who will remain obscure till the world learns about them.