“Only someone who understands something absolutely
can explain it so no one else can understand it.”
-- Rudnicki's Nobel Prize Principle
Academic research is wonderful and absolutely fundamental to the progress of humanity in every field. I used to be a researcher myself, and I remember the frustration when, after talking with excitement about the incredible results achieved in my field (not by me, but by other amazing researchers), the people I was talking to would ask the feared question, in an unimpressed tone: “Cool, but what is that useful for?”.
When I decided to leave academia I joined ASI Data Science and I think the transition has been smooth: the best part of my current job is that I’m required to keep up-to-date with the latest research trends and to keep studying and experimenting. That said, after turning to industry, it quickly became clear to me that I need to change the way I worked.
The main area that I needed to improve was communication. A couple of years ago, I remember thinking about why I had to spend so much time writing a paper or worrying about presentations instead of conducting more experiments and getting more results. But after having spent time on this side of the barrier, it is now much clearer to me how important it is to communicate the results in the correct way so that others can understand it.
Industry needs academic research. But research needs industry too, and I am very sorry to see so many missed opportunities due to a lack of communication.
Academic talks are usually incredibly dense, full of content but also often inscrutable and impossible for others to understand. I see slides and slides crammed full with words, formulas and plots. None of the slides are designed to convey a clear message to others. It’s almost as if whoever put the slides together thought: “Well, they won’t understand anyway, so why bother trying?” From the other side, I know the real reason is more likely that the researcher doesn’t think they have the time to be bothered with these kinds of details, but this type of attitude towards presentations is a real put off for audiences, whether technical or not.
I’m not talking about giving amazing and inspirational talks. I’m talking more about covering the basics and caring about the audience who will be listening. Who are they? What’s their background? What are they interested in? And simple things to fix such as: are my plots readable? Are the labels clear and big enough to be seen? Is there a legend that is legible or should I explain all of the details so my audience will understand, or perhaps even both? And how long will it take for a human to read and understand all of the words I put in this slide whilst I talk over it?
Of course, the content of your presentation won’t be accessible to everyone, especially if you’re talking about cutting edge research. However, an audience composed of other academics will have the tools and ability to understand what you are talking about if you put them in conditions to do so. And this applies for other audience settings too. If you can communicate your research at a level appropriate for industry, the research is much likely to be picked up by companies, leading to possible collaborations and funding.
The output of research is not only the results you get to write in a paper, but also includes the way the results are disseminated, shared with other researchers and put into practice in the real world. Academia and Industry should go hand in hand, and my hope is that even a little bit more effort in trying to speak a similar language will help reduce the gap between them. If this does not happen we will keep on living in two different worlds separated by a glass wall, and cutting edge research will take much longer to find practical applications, leading to a much slower progress. And that would be a shame for everyone.