2010/04/18

Australia and the Researchers' Workbench

This is a pitch for something new: the "Researchers' Workbench".
Australia has the wealth and inventiveness to do it, but most probably, not the political will.
Chalk that up to "the Cultural Cringe".

Pitch.
I.T./Computers are "Cognitive Amplifiers".

They aren't just a 'good' fit to Research, but a Perfect 'fit':
Researchers are the definitive "Knowledge Workers".
This idea isn't new or exclusive, here's what's gone before.

Theme 1: Augmenting Human Intellect.
In 1968, Doug Englebart of Stanford/SRI and his Augmenting Human Intellect Research Centre did a demo (available on-line) of their work in the area.
40 years on, this initial work has languished.
Could the ANU or CSIRO repeat the demo, even given some time? I doubt it...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mother_of_All_Demos
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Engelbart
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augmentation_Research_Center

Theme 2: Bush's Memex.
Couple this with what Vannevar Bush actually proposed in his 1945 article, "As we may think", the "Memex".

This is much more than simple "Hypertext": It was a way to distil 'threads' of knowledge into accessible units, index and search them, and give/swap with others.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memex

There is a huge obstacle in the way of implementing true "Memex" capabilities these days:
Copyright and Digital Library access.
These obstacles are trivially solvable for people working within a single institution which has paid for collective access. But much more is needed to expand the scope to a general solution for swapable "threads" incorporating copyright, digital material.

For instance, why does every University and Research organisation, or Libraries, in Australia separately license access to the many digital resources on-line?

Especially when DEST (Dept of Education, Science and Training), and ARC (Australian Research Council), who fund the vast bulk of work, could copy the "Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme" (PBS) and negotiate single licenses for all Australian Institutions.

Theme 3: Researchers Workbench.
The world of Programming was transformed around 1973 by Bell Labs and its "Programmers' Workbench".
It consisted of a few tools, now considered staples by the Open Source project community.
The power of the work was distilling essential processes into fewer than a dozen tools, applicable to many fields.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PWB/UNIX

Where is the "Researchers' Workbench" or the studies identifying what's needed or optimal at the individual, group/team, departmental, Institutional and Subject Area level??

Theme 4: Research into Research.
Lastly, the organisation and execution of Researcher work, time and processes needs definitive investigation.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi suggested, after studying what made Nobel Laureates different, "Flow" as a critical difference.
Is it? i.e. Has that finding been tested and proven or refuted?
Are there others?
If "Flow" is real, why isn't it well known and practised as a matter of course in Academia?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)

There have to be some simple disciplines that underpin the output of the best, most prolific Researchers.
Something that allows them to use the equivalent of Einstein's "most powerful force in the Universe": compound interest.

What techniques, disciplines or processes would allow Researchers to improve their output/performance by an significant fraction every year?

I posit that there are only a very few tools needed for a Researchers' Workbench, such as:
  • Shared Annotated and Ranked Bibliographies
  • Mind-Map representations of Knowledge Areas
  • a (single) definitive searchable document document repository (docs as PDF's) for selected Bodies of Knowledge. i.e. "Google Books" for academic books/journals/papers.
  • PDF annotation, link/reference tools, and
  • appropriate search and information/knowledge organisation tools & representations.

Gestalt.
Applying these approaches together (Englebart's Augmentation, Bush's Memex, the Workbench and Research into Research)  would be transformative in the Academic/Research world.
Also surprisingly cheap.

Here's a simple test/question:
Is there any evidence that Microsoft Word is even a suitable, let alone effective, tool for creating Academic Papers?

If not, why it is used almost exclusively through major Universities?
What are the characteristics needed of "Perfect Academic Writing Tools"?
Why aren't these needs well known?

The world of Academia and Research is an "Elite Sport": highly competitive, intense on-going activity requiring the best/most effective training techniques of the most suited and most capable individuals. With only occasional "crystallisation" points: where performance/outcomes are unequivocally judged. (Not unlike the Olympics).

The A.I.S. (Australian Institute of Sport) proved two things:
  • "It takes a village to raise a child": or a large co-operative/coordinated organisation to create Great Sportspeople, and
  • the process can be replicated. [other countries now do it]

The A.I.S. result wasn't accidental or unplanned: They applied the "Scientific Method" to their task/goal.
What matters in producing "winning performances"? e.g. {Selection, Coaching, Technique, Training/Learning, Training Regime and Work-load, Nutrition, Mental/psych Factors, Recuperation and Recovery from Injuries}
"What Works" in each of the areas?
How do we measure and improve each area?

After around 25 years of outstanding and obvious achievement of the A.I.S., I don't understand the seemingly complete blindness of Academia/Research to applying their own methods/principles to their own work. If Human Performances can be systematically improved in Sports by applying 'Science', then isn't that enough evidence to at least trial the idea on Academia and Research itself?

Where is the Academic Discipline of "Research into Research"?
Where is the "Office for Improving Research" in each and every University?
Clearly, the simple, coarse metrics used now to characterise "Researcher Outputs" for DEST funding are not sufficient for intensive study of the Science of Research. One of the priority research areas of the A.I.S. initially was breaking down performances and the factors contributing.

Alan Kay, a noted Computing pioneer at XEROX PARC, commented "Point of View is worth 80 IQ points".
PARC managed to redefine the world of Computing/Networking in the early '70's with a small team and some very powerful organisational ideas and approaches.

I suggest that applying the "I.T. as a Cognitive Amplifier" Point of View to Academic Research in a disciplined, organised way would significantly raise the Collective I.Q. of Australian Research, and in certain fields really produce that "80 IQ point" advantage Kay suggests.

This is equivalent of Roger Bannister in 1954 not just breaking the record by 2 seconds and achieving the first "four minute mile", but beating Sebastian Coe's time of 30 years later.

Australia could "steal a march" on the rest of the world.
Once ahead, the work should feed on itself and push our Researchers further ahead.
A secondary effect is The Best Centres attract the best, brightest and most ambitious. A virtuous circle.

The A.I.S. experience shows the cost of creating "super-stars" is calculable and within the reach of a wealthy small nation, such as Australia.
It also shows there is a very strong "First Mover" advantage, that can be maintained and extended for quite some time.

The obvious starting place is Canberra, home of the Australian National University, the same place as the A.I.S.
Like the A.I.S., the program has to become trans-national, with decentralised areas of excellence and expertise.

Why now and where's the urgency?

The USA's National Science Foundation, via it's Office of Integrative Activities, is now funding projects for a new program:
Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation (CDI).
... is NSF’s bold five-year initiative to create revolutionary science and engineering research outcomes made possible by innovations and advances in computational thinking.
Australians have always been very inventive and occasionally this has translated into "innovation".
We have shown we "punch above our weight" in areas where the Research Outputs can be directly applied, as suggested here...

We get one shot at being "The First" to Augment and Amplify Researcher Intelligence.
We can choose to be Leaders or Followers and enjoy the on-going consequences of either.

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