Werner Vogels, a member of the USENIX ’04 Program Committee, has written very thoughtful responses to some of my observations. And it’s clear that Werner and I see the same problem: there is insufficient industrial/academic cooperation in computer science systems research — and the lack of cooperation is to the detriment of both groups.
That said, it’s clear that there are some different perspectives as to how to address the problem. A common sentiment that I’m seeing in the comments is that it is up to industry to keep USENIX relevant (in Werner’s words, “industry will need to be more pro-active in making researchers aware of what the problems are that they need to solve”). I don’t entirely agree; in my opinion, the responsibility for keeping USENIX relevant doesn’t lie exclusively with industry — and it doesn’t lie exclusively with academia, either. Rather, the responsibility lies with USENIX itself, for it is the mission of USENIX to encourage research with a “practical bias.” As such, it is up to USENIX to assemble a Program Committee that will reflect this mission, and it is up to both academia and industry to participate as requested. This means that USENIX cannot simply wait for volunteers from industry to materialize — USENIX must seek out people in industry who understand both the academic and the industrial sides of systems research, and they must convince these people to work on a Program Committee. Now, I know that this has happened in the past — and frankly I thought that the USENIX ’04 Program Committee was a step in the right direction: where USENIX ’03 had four (of sixteen) members from industry, USENIX ’04 had six (of seventeen). But unfortunately, USENIX ’05 seems to be a marked decline in industry participation, even from USENIX ’03: the number from industry has dropped back to four (of eighteen). Worse, all four are from industry labs; where both USENIX ’03 and USENIX ’04 had at least one product-oriented member from industry, USENIX ’05 has none.
Examining these three years of USENIX brings up an interesting question: what has the Program Committee composition looked like over time? That is, is the situation getting better or worse vis a vis industry participation? To answer this question, I looked at the Program Committee composition for the last nine years.
The results are perhaps well-known, but they were shocking to me:
To me, this trend should be deeply disconcerting: an organization that has dedicated itself to research with a “practical bias” is clearly losing that bias in its flagship conference.
So what to do? First, we need some recognition from the USENIX side that this is a serious issue, and that it requires substantial corrective action. I believe that the USENIX Board should charter a committee that consists of academia and industry (both labs and product groups) in roughly equal measure. This committee should hash out some of the misconceptions that each group has of the other, clearly define the problems, develop some long-term (measurable) goals, and make some concrete short- and medium-term recommendations. The deliverable of the committee should be a report summarizing their findings and recommendations — recommendations that the Board should consider but is obviously free to ignore.
The situation is serious, and there is much work to be done to rectify it — but I am heartened by the amount of thought that Werner has put into this issue. If we can find more like him from both industry and academia, we can get the “practical bias” back into USENIX.