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Open Source Technology: A Career in Engineering

Skype conversation and email interview between 80,000 Hours (Benjamin Todd) and Joshua Pearce (Professor at Michigan Tech and Member of 80,000 Hours)

I contacted Joshua to talk about how he had used his academic career to do high impact research. In summary:

  • We talked about which research questions might be important in engineering
  • We identified an area that might be promising (which we’ll be looking into more): Open Source Appropriate Technology – providing free information about technology that anyone can build that solves problems in the developing world
  • We discussed some of the barriers to doing this research: there’s very little funding and a shortage of grad students willing to work in an area with uncertain job prospects
  • We discussed the barriers to doing high impact research within academia in general: there’s very little funding, there’s many non-research demands on your time, there’s a need to work on conventional questions to further your career
  • We talked about some strategies for dealing with these barriers: sources of funding, how you can do un-funded work alongside your other projects, gaining status (and tenure) in a mainstream field then using it to promote other work, finding a mentor who’s already been there


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Tell us a little about what you do and why you’re interested in 80,000 Hours?

I am a professor at Michigan Tech where I run our Open Sustainability Technology Research Group. My research focuses on open and applied sustainability, which is the application of science and innovation to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems. Specifically I am interested in exploring the way solar energy can be used to provide clean sustainable electricity through photovoltaic devices and how the sharing of open source hardware and software can create sustainable and equitable means of production (e.g. create open source appropriate technology and other free and open source hardware). This research couples very nicely to the goals of 80,000 Hours.

Why do you think the research you’re working on has the potential to have a big impact? How will progress on this question translate into people’s lives getting better?

My research time is essentially shared between technical aspects of solar photovoltaic (PV) technology, that converts sunlight directly into electricity and open source appropriate technology (OSAT) for sustainable development.

For PV I fundamentally work on driving up efficiency – but the entire goal is to make a low-cost solar energy technology that can provide clean sustainable and abundant electricity for everyone. As the solar industry grows it also helps my research scale to have a large impact (e.g. if I develop a means of increasing efficiency only a fraction of a percent and if all the manufacturers use it, millions more dollars in solar energy is generated and we speed the phase out fossil fuels and their concomitant filth). Any improvement to the technical aspects of PV, drives down the cost of solar electricity, which can help on the energy policy front as well. Moving to a solar energy-based society would have a huge impact as it will solve a lot of other problems (e.g. climate change, water pollution, energy wars, etc.).

But perhaps more exciting is your work on OSAT, tell us a bit more about that.

OSAT refers to technologies that provide for sustainable development while being designed in the same fashion as free and open-source software. OSAT can be anything from a treadle pump to a PV-powered house as long as it is designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social, political, and economical aspects of the community. The open-source development model is enormously powerful and if my work helps result in a critical mass of researchers focusing on AT, much of the so-called sustainable development problems will be solved quickly by relentless innovation and collaboration provided by the OS model.

As one example, we could get all the undergrad engineers working on real optimization problems for pieces of technology in the developing world – like doing the fluid mechanics of a new treadle pump – instead of toy problems, which they could find through this OS community.

Of the areas you’re familiar with, which important research question do you think is most funding constrained? If you had $1m of unconstrained money, what would you do with it?

How to help the globally impoverished (people with no money and no chance at buying conventional ‘products’) help themselves out of poverty into rich sustainable lives. If I had a $1m of unconstrained research funding I would focus full time on these rarely-funded problems.

Tell us a little more about why you think this area is particularly promising.

The greatest chance for real leverage now involves catalyzing more people to contribute to the greater collective good by participating in open-source development of solutions to sustainability problems. This can be through:

  • hardcore engineering or science – for example my favorite PV: A. J. Buitenhuis and J. M. Pearce, “Open-Source Development of Solar Photovoltaic Technology”, Energy for Sustainable Development, 16, pp. 379-388 (2012). open access

  • open source science and open access education – J. M. Pearce, “Building Research Equipment with Free, Open-Source Hardware.” Science 337 (6100): 1303–1304 (2012) . open access Podcast

  • or OSAT – J. M. Pearce, “The Case for Open Source Appropriate Technology”, Environment, Development and Sustainability, 14, pp. 425-431 (2012). open access

The hope is that we can get a critical mass of researchers working in this way, so the OS community really takes off.

Appropriate Technology seems particularly exciting. AT involves simple innovations that anyone can implement. This means that there’s zero commercial incentive to work on it, so the area is completely funding-constrained. Nevertheless, many of these innovations have the potential to substantially boost quality of life.

It sounds a bit like how in medicine there’s little incentive to work on simple solutions to simple questions, like ‘when should I exercise during the day to get a good night’s sleep?’ That’s because there’s no product at the end of it. Nevertheless, if we could find a free, simple way to get more sleep, it would be really useful.

Exactly. I can get multimillion dollar grants to work on PV energy, but I can’t get 500 bucks to work on a solar water purifier that anyone could build.

Which important research question do you think is most talent-constrained? In other words, if you could get a smart, dedicated grad student to research an unconstrained topic, what would it be?

We need technically proficient graduate students that think broadly about the world like social scientists. We need hackers/makers that can and want to work on OSAT – solving technical problems that matter – just not making money, solving puzzles or playing games. Specifically graduate students are needed to work on solar powered self-replicating open-source 3-D printers - capable of making OSAT from recycled waste along with anything else people need. This is a big multi-year massively collaborative project – but it could change everything from the way we construct buildings to how global trade operates. See: J. M Pearce, C. Morris Blair, K. J. Laciak, R. Andrews, A. Nosrat and I. Zelenika-Zovko, “3-D Printing of Open Source Appropriate Technologies for Self-Directed Sustainable Development”, *Journal of Sustainable Development * 3(4), pp. 17-29 (2010). open access

Why don’t more grad students work on these problems?

It’s a more risky option for them. They care about being employable, so they tend to work in fields with commercial relevance.

But since this area is so neglected, it seems like a bright ‘hacker’ grad student could make a big splash. Jobs often follow from success.

That might be right!

What obstacles have you faced to doing important research? In your experience, why does really important research not get done?

The primary obstacles are funding and wasted time. In my opinion much state- and corporate-sponsored research funding does not directly help solve our sustainability problems, but actively causes additional harm. It is extremely hard to get grants that directly benefit the impoverished, directly help the environment rather than study it, or anything that could hurt profit generation. So for example, it is much easier to get a grant to study cancer or how to “cure” it than it is to get a grant to quantify Exxon-Mobil’s responsibility for additional cancer patients/year. Similarly you can get funding to look at nuclear materials, but are unlikely to win a grant to quantify the nuclear insurance subsidy, which makes it possible for the nuclear industry to exist. You can get funds to make a solar-powered military tent, but not a solar-powered water purification system for villages….you get the idea. Time is the second biggest constraint. There is a lot of work to do. Bureaucratic overhead burns time and keeps otherwise useful people from doing meaningful work.

What tips do you have on overcoming these obstacles?

For funding, I look for the white-knight corporations – the good guys that are trying to do right by people and the planet while running a business. There are tons of examples in the renewable energy field and open source business communities. Leverage these funds to get state funding.

Work on the most important questions that may not be fundable for free in your own time or link them on funded projects. For example, everyone in my lab must take on a secondary project to work on when they have down time (e.g. when waiting for deliveries). These are invariably unfunded projects. The largest costs for research are 1) overhead and 2) labor. When you do unfunded research 1 disappears and 2 you provide, so you can actually do a lot of good with a little.

For time – don’t waste it and try to make it as hard as possible for other people to waste yours. For example, take journal papers or your laptop to read while at mandatory meetings. Block off large sections of the day to think and do research – don’t check your email or answer your phone at that time. When you are on the phone stand up. Lose your cell phone. Force petty bureaucrats to invest more time in you than they can extract from you. Surround yourself with people that get things done. Help them succeed and they will return the favor.

What advice would you offer a grad student who wants to make the world a better place with their research?

Find a solid mentor/ advisor. This is the most important task you must achieve to be successful in both grad school in general, but also for attacking bigger problems. The ideal advisors are doing the high-impact good-for-the-world research and are generous with their students. Second best is a top pedigree that can teach you how to win – then you can apply the techniques yourself to more important problems later. When you are interviewing take your prospective mentor’s existing graduate students to lunch to see what life is really like in their group. Understand that you will need to work far more than 40 hours a week to be internationally competitive as a graduate student. So make sure you enjoy and are gratified by the subject you are tackling.

For preparing for grad school. Be superior – that means pulling higher grades, working harder and longer than your peers, studying for the GREs, not wasting time getting drunk, etc. Start research early as an undergrad or do experiments on your own. When you apply to graduate school come with a portfolio of work you have done – e.g. engineers better have built something that is impressive – the competition is fierce for any spot worth having. Like most profs. I get dozens of emails a week asking for grad student spots – if you want me to read past the first line of your email it has to be clear that you are elite and want to work with me, not just get paid to go to grad school because you got As.

In my experience, if you want to do ‘good’ research you will have to work twice as hard. Make sure you are doing everything to get your degree and become respected in your field AND do your good research. Publish in both the traditional subject literature and your extra subject aggressively. Target the highest impact factor journals possible for your work so it gains visibility. If you like research, I highly recommend you consider becoming a faculty member, because it is one of the few jobs that allows you flexibility with how you spend your time. It is a true blessing.

So, you’re suggesting that often it’s best to do well in some conventional area, and then use the position to promote the research you think really matters? Give us some more tips on that.

To get a tenured faculty spot means you must be able to publish, pull in grant funding, and teach. You should practice all three (e.g. ask to take on a lecture for your advisor and help prepare grants while in grad school). To publish a lot, you need to collaborate. Be kind, look for synergies and be generous with others in your field, help their research succeed and it will pay off in the long term. In many fields you must not only publish, but also get cited to drive up your h-index. The best way to get cited is to do research that is helpful to other researchers solve important problems and make sure they can read it. 80,000 Hours can help you find problems, but be warned that high citation rates are challenging in low-funded research areas. Double up. To ensure everyone can read your work you must make sure that all of your publications should in some way be open access – even if it is just publishing pre-prints in repositories (institutional, arXiv, SSRN, academia.edu, etc.). If you want your work to be read and used in the developing world this is particularly important.

In my group we not only open access our articles, but also open-source all of our literature reviews, methodologies, software and now even our equipment schematics and digital designs. We use http://www.appropedia.org to house most of it, which is the largest open-edit wiki dedicated to sustainability and poverty reduction. I have found this open-source research method extremely successful. The results of this experimental “aggressive sharing” found that more rapid deployment of sustainability technologies is possible with i) massive peer-review in the development of background material and experimental design, ii) increased visibility, which leads to iii) increased funding opportunities and improved student recruitment, and iv) improved student research-related training and education.

See: J. M. Pearce, “Open Source Research in Sustainability”, Sustainability the Journal of Record, 5(4), pp. 238-243, 2012. http://www.academia.edu/1861756/Open_Source_Research_in_Sustainability

Thanks very much! I look forward to talking more about OSAT in the future


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