Experts Split on Which Direction Computer Research Should Go

Times Staff Writer

The mere thought of it must be sheer heresy to the likes of corporate titans, but the plain fact is there are computer scientists out there who just don't care about quarterly sales, market shares and profits.

And a good number of these fellows--yes, they are mostly men--have gathered here this week from around the world to ponder and discuss the outlook for computer science some five to 20 years into the future from their perspectives in the research and development laboratories of today.

But amid the highbrow conversations and detailed scholarly papers here at the World Computer Congress, the nearly 1,400 "nerds on the cutting edge," as one local wag dubbed them, are being exhorted to expand their software engineering and programming language horizons to include more of the present-day realities of corporate commerce.

Bottom Line Results

"Scientists are increasingly being asked to get out of their ivory towers, and many of those who do leave are doing quite well for themselves in the world of business," explained Herve Gallaire, managing director of the European Computer Industry Research Center. "After all, there's no way you can continue to pursue theory without drying out."

The strong undercurrent toward practical science at the prestigious triennial congress revives the age-old tug-of-war between applied and theoretical research at a time when funding for scientific research is increasingly being dictated by the requirements of such mundane matters as bottom line results.

For example, John Young, president and chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, the Silicon Valley computer maker, told the congress that nearly half the $125 billion spent annually in the United States on scientific research comes from private enterprise, whose ability to fund these projects is increasingly pinched.

The trend has been noticed by the scientists, and many are clearly not happy about it.

Donald Knuth, a computer science professor at Stanford University, decried the situation during a welcoming speech to the congress, and argued that funding for theoretical and practical research must be more balanced.

Setting Priorities

"The scientific community faces a crisis in which a substantial number of the world's best scientists in all fields cannot get financial support for their work unless they subscribe to somebody else's agenda," Knuth said. "We need to go back to a system where people . . . are given a chance to set their own priorities. . . . Otherwise we'll face a big slump in our future abilities to tackle new problems."

Even those who are benefiting from the trend aren't necessarily completely happy.

Take, for example, Kurt Kosanke, a German computer scientist at the Brussels laboratories of Esprit, a research consortium of several dozen European companies.

For the last four years, Kosanke has headed a research team of nearly 60 engineers who are exploring ways to improve the use of computers and computer-generated information in the basic process of manufacturing, whether automobiles or steel.

Although his project is viewed as a practical solution to real-life problems, Kosanke believes basic, theoretical research has not gotten its fair share. "Applied research is getting the money. That's just the way things are now."

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