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Communications of the ACM


Here's Why Microsoft Cares About Basic Research — And You Should, Too

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Jeannette M. Wing, a corporate vice president at Microsoft Research, oversees the company's core research labs.

Credit: Microsoft Research

The Internet, global positioning systems, the laser, multi-touch displays and search engines.

What do these have in common? These technologies, which we take for granted today, came out of basic scientific research. Basic research creates knowledge. It advances our fundamental understanding of the world.

Basic scientific research made today's technology possible, and it will lead to tomorrow's technological breakthroughs. That's why we believe it is important for our company and for our country.

At Microsoft, we support basic research through our Microsoft Research labs because we believe that it is key to building a strong company and a strong economy.

A strong Microsoft is vital to the livelihood and productivity of billions of users around the world who rely on Microsoft products and services. A strong Microsoft is critical to a strong U.S. economy in a time when we are facing unprecedented global competition. And a strong Microsoft allows us to look beyond the horizon in pursuit of The Next Big Thing that can improve the human condition.

Microsoft's nearly 25-year bet on research is a way to cover all these bases, and so far, the return on that bet is paying dividends to Microsoft, our industry and our global economy.

Unbeknownst to most people, Microsoft Research technology is found in almost every single Microsoft product and service. Our more than 1,000 researchers and engineers contribute to ensuring our products and services perform more reliably, more efficiently and more securely. Some of the features that delight our customers were invented by our researchers. Our researchers also provide deep and broad expertise in state-of-the-art science and technology to the company.

Microsoft Research also is a talent magnet for the company. We attract the best and brightest from academia because of our open, long-term research environment. Our open philosophy, which encourages our researchers to publish in peer-reviewed venues and to collaborate freely with academia, makes Microsoft Research unique in the academia-industry-government ecosystem.

We understand the importance of providing a stable research environment, so our researchers can take risks in their work. Our support of long-term research gives our people the freedom to pursue an ambitious research agenda—the kind of agenda that requires patience and perseverance, and the ability to look beyond a 90-day financial reporting cycle. It gives them the freedom to pursue curiosity-driven research where serendipity and luck are often factors to success.

Our research investments in speech, natural language processing and machine learning have contributed to the development of Skype Translator and Cortana. Our investments in biological computing and quantum computing are examples of our bets on the future of computing.

In short, Microsoft's investment in Microsoft Research is a bet on the company's future success.

Prosperity, competitiveness, security

The value of Microsoft's investments in basic research extends far beyond the company's self-interest; I believe basic research also is vital to the future of our country, for many of the same reasons.

The pursuit of fundamental scientific research is key to building and maintaining economic prosperity, global competitiveness and national security.

It's equally important to building a talented workforce. After all, it's people who generate the ideas that then lead to technology innovation. Investing in faculty and students means ensuring a robust talent pipeline for the future.

Investing in basic research ensures a strong America in the future.

Last year, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report called Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream. It argued, in part, "that while both applied research and development are undeniably important, path-breaking discoveries are most likely to come from basic research, funded mainly by the federal government, carried out in the nation's universities and national laboratories, and sustained over long periods of time."

This 2014 report follows in the footsteps of the highly influential 2007 National Academies' report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, and its 2010 update. How influential were these reports? The two Rising reports led to passing the America COMPETES Act in 2007 and its reauthorization in 2010, "to invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States."

We need to continue our commitment to that investment.

In support of the Restoring the Foundation report, American industry, academic, science and engineering leaders recently signed the Innovation Imperative, urging Congress to enact policies to ensure that the United States remains the global innovation leader. The Innovation Imperative asks Congress to renew the federal commitment to scientific discovery, reaffirm the merit-based peer review process and improve student achievement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

I am extremely proud that my CEO, Satya Nadella, was among the corporate leaders who signed the Innovation Imperative. To me, it means Microsoft understands and believes in the value of basic research—for the company and for the country.

On Tuesday, Oct. 20, I have the honor to participate in a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill to help identify key priorities for the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015. As lawmakers consider this bill, our goal should be clear: Let’s reaffirm our commitment to funding basic research, and maintaining our place as a global innovation leader, by passing a robust version of America COMPETES. 

Jeannette M. Wing is a corporate vice president at Microsoft Research, overseeing the company's core research labs.


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