Why basic research matters I: Mark Green

This summer, I gave a keynote presentation that covered more than 30 years of my own research. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on the research results that have made an impact, particularly in industrial practice.

The field of computer science moves so quickly that you can observe the long-term impact of your research within your own lifetime.  I found that the my most significant long-term impacts came from my pure or curiosity-driven research.  I have done a lot of applied research, but its impact has been short-term and quickly forgotten.  In addition, it’s the results of the pure research that I now teach to undergraduate students, including in our introductory computer science course.  History demonstrates how pure and applied research are intertwined.

In the 1970s, I started working on the problem of automating the design of graphical user interfaces. This may seem like an applied problem now, but long before the introduction of the Mac OS and Microsoft Windows, it was viewed as relatively useless research of no practical value. I can still vividly remember industry leaders calling me another of those crazy university researchers and insisting that “no one would ever want to use a mouse with a computer.”

In 1986, I wrote a paper on the foundations of user-interface software. At the time, it was viewed as a very theoretical paper. The journal editor thought the paper was so theoretical that I had to move some of the material, theorems and proofs to a technical report before he would accept it. He told me that no one would read the paper.

In 2005, I returned to Canada to start a new computer science program at a new university. I prepared by reviewing the standard undergraduate computer science curriculum produced by the two leading professional societies in the area.  Much to my surprise, this paper was listed as one of the topics that all undergraduate computer science students should be familiar with.  In 20 years, it had gone from too theoretical for an academic journal to part of the undergraduate curriculum.

In the 1980s, I was part of a small group of researchers investigating a “curiosity” that was an offshoot of our main line of research.  We didn’t think it would amount to much, but we wrote a few papers on it.  Over time the main line of research died out, but this offshoot started to gain traction. It has now become a standard part of software development, which I teach in our first computer science course.

Why is this important? After presenting the topic, I then state that I was one of the people who developed it. For first year students this demystifies the whole research process.  Research isn’t done by people who are long dead, but by people just like them. We need to teach our students early that they are the innovators of the future. They can’t just follow along – they can and must lead.  I believe it helps to have this message delivered by someone who has been there, who can make the story real.

If we do not expose our undergraduate students to pure research, we are doing them a great disservice. In fast-paced fields like computer science the “applied” topics that we teach them now are often out of date shortly after they graduate.  To prepare them for the future we need to whet their appetite for curiosity-driven research that will empower them to continue to explore new and different ideas long after they graduate.

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