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Research, what’s the same and what’s different?

It’s always interesting to see where a conversation goes. I went to several interviews expecting to learn specifically about research projects, and ended up gaining a new perspective on how research has changed over time, and how  it hasn’t.

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Research hasn’t changed much in regards to gaining publicity. Doctor Stephen Hayne told me, “We are still driven  to publish our results, discoveries, and our intellectual endeavors in the top ranked journals because that is how  we get rewarded at the university level.” He asked me if I’d ever heard of a concept known as, “publish or perish”.  If you don’t publish you can’t be a professor at a research one organization, which is what Colorado State  University was classified as when those designations were more common.

In order to be published in an academic journal, a professor has to submit his or her work to anonymous peer  review. It’s like having two people in your class randomly chosen to grade you on your work. The graders don’t know whose paper they are grading and you don’t know who’s grading yours. Now imagine only 10% of papers written in the class can get A’s, 60% get B’s, and 30% get C’s. An A means you are able to get your work published in a highly respected journal. What is the incentive to give someone else an A, if by giving them an A, the grader’s chances for an A decline? The best case scenario creates a highly competitive environment which only accepts the best work. The worst-case scenario means the system tilts the scales against fair judgment. This system has stayed the same ever since Stephen started his first doctoral research project. He still finds it exciting and challenging to try and get published in the top journals. It takes a lot of work, originality, and dedication to make it happen.

John_ElderWhat’s really new in research is the technology. The ability to collect data has grown by leaps and bounds. Much of this is thanks to Moore’s Law. Dr. John Elder explained to me how a lot of data collection done now would’ve been impossible fifteen years ago. “Computers, when I was finishing up my work in the late 90’s, were quite a bit slower,” John told me. John was able to finish a project he’d worked on as a PhD student over a decade ago by buying a new desktop computer, and letting it run the data for four months.

More tools are also available for researchers to use for processing complex relationships. The complexity of problems which can be analyzed is greater than it was 20 years ago. John told me there was a second implication of better computing, “The other thing is we can analyze data at much higher frequencies.”

Daily observations on stock were state of the art 20 years ago. Now we have data coming in every time a price updates on the market. This quickly compiles into gigabytes of data. John sounded amused as he told me, “When I was in my PhD program I spent $3000 on a computer with an extra-large hard drive, and that hard drive was 100 MB.”  To see where we have been makes me want to see where research will go in the future.

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