Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Corporate sponsorship in Computer Science research

Luis von Ahn came up with a great idea to bolster research funding in an ailing economy -- corporate sponsorship of professors wearing logos while they teach. I wholly support this idea, especially since I currently wear t-shirts from companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Intel for free. These companies really should be paying me for my advertising their brands to my students, given my ridiculously high degree of influence over them.

Add ImageThe recent New York Times article about drug company ties to medical schools got me thinking about why there isn't a similar controversy with corporate sponsorship of computer scientists. After all, many of us get research funding from companies, and much of that funding comes with an explicit (or implicit) assumption that we will leverage that company's technology in our work. For example, Microsoft gave my group a research grant last year to link our CitySense system into their way-cool SensorMap platform. This was clearly a blatant attempt by Microsoft to get us to use their technology, but how could we resist? We need the funding, and the only ethically dubious aspect of the project was having to program in C#. No pain, no gain, right? (Notice how I used the expression "way cool" in this paragraph? How's that for subtle?)

Apart from research grants, some companies grease us up with really serious perks! For example, Microsoft flies hundreds of CS professors out to Redmond every year for an intense three-day "Faculty Summit," the capstone of which is usually a cruise on Lake Washington with an open bar. Believe me, there is nothing that says "high roller" more than being crammed on a boat with a few hundred geeky CS profs drinking cheap chardonnay after a long day hearing talks about .NET and Windows Media Services. The coolest part is we get these really spiffy fleece vests to take home with us, which would be great for keeping warm in the New England winters except they have no arms. Those dermatologists getting free golf vacations to St. Kitts have no idea what they're missing!

It's clear that this flagrant corporate brainwashing is starting to trickle down to the educational mission as well. Hundreds of universities have ditched standard, non-proprietary languages like C and are now teaching their intro CS courses in -- gasp! -- Java. Here at Harvard, we're letting this nutjob from Sun named Jim Waldo teach a distributed systems course, knowing full well that he uses the entire semester to indoctrinate our students in how to program Java RMI. Stanford is even offering a course on iPhone programming. Both MIT and Stanford named their CS buildings after Bill Gates, and Berkeley named a lounge after -- get this! -- Steve Wozniak. What's next? The Werner Vogels Library? The Sergey Brin and Larry Page Annual Easter-Egg Hunt?

Where do we draw the line with this nonsense?

So I think there is a real crisis here and it's clear the NY Times is just not paying attention. I for one applaud those brave Harvard medical students who have dared to stand up to the insidious support of the drug companies with the expectation that rejecting corporate sponsorship will endow them with a "pure" education. It's only a matter of time before a bunch of CS students wise up to what is going on and do likewise. They may even go so far as to start a Facebook group to protest. Now that would really be something.


  1. You, Sir, have just made me spew coffee. Well played... well played, indeed.

  2. Nice article. Very thoughtful.