University Research: A Skeptical Perspective by A. Michael Noll

Sunday, January 14th, 2018


A. Michael Noll

January 13, 2018

© Copyright 2017 AMN

University research has skeptically made little contribution to the striking advances in communications technology of the last 50 or so years. This is hardly surprising, since most of the advances came from R&D at industrial facilities. The skeptical perspective in this piece is based on my early experience at an industrial research laboratory, in government, and later at a university. My conclusion is that university research is essential mostly for the education and training of students, who then graduate and conduct meaningful research for industry.

Ivory Tower

One important example of technological innovation in the communication area is communication satellites. But they were not the result of university research. Bell Labs pioneered satellite communications over a half century ago. In fact, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, as early as 1945, first proposed communication satellites. The Soviets (Sputnik in 1957) developed the first satellite. Then Bell Telephone Laboratories (Echo in 1960 and Telstar in 1962) developed early communication satellites — none of this was university research.

Another technological innovation is the Internet. Was it solely the result of university research? The precursor of today’s Internet was the Arpanet, which utilized packet switching to avoid then costly data service. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Federal defense department funded the development of the Arpanet, which was the brainchild of Dr. Larry Roberts, who directed the project at ARPA. Much of the actual development work was done at Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN). Although university people were involved, the Arpanet was not solely the result of university research.

I am not familiar with chemical research and physics, and thus do not know how much practical research has occurred at university facilities. My expertise is in electrical engineering and telecommunications technology. Interesting university research has been done in astrophysics, but little relevance has occurred from this research – it deals with such topics as black holes and distances measured in millions on light years. Decades ago, John McCarthy at his laboratory at Stanford University, and the students he educated did exciting research in artificial intelligence and robotics.

The broader question is what is the purpose and mission of universities, and what is the role of university research? This can become the domain of self-serving opinion. It is a controversial topic with “muddy waters” on its importance depending on personal opinions and perspectives.

Sitting here at my desk with the computer on which I am writing this article, I think of the technology around me. The graphical interface on the computer was invented at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC); the mouse was invented at the Stanford Research Institute; researchers at Bell Telephone Laboratories invented the Unix operating system. None of this was university research. Many innovations are the result of discoveries by many researchers at different organizations – credit frequently should be more collectively attributed.

The Federal government through a peer-review process sponsors much university research. The process in seeking support for peer-reviewed research is lengthy and elaborate. It sometimes appears that more thought and effort goes into writing the proposal than the actual conduct of the research. The peer review process assures that the research will be mostly mainstream.

Decades ago, when I worked in Washington and collaborated with the Office of Management and Budget, I wondered whether university research funded by the National Science Foundation was a form of welfare for academics. It was also a reason for being released from teaching a course or two — teaching is real work.

I wonder whether it would be simpler and would result in more innovative groundbreaking research if the university simply supported the research from its endowment and own funds. But these funds would need to be distributed evenly and might not be sufficient to support current levels of research. However, avoiding proposal writing might add efficiency.

University research frequently is more theoretical, not very practical, and long term. It usually is not the kind of proprietary research that leads to breakthroughs and pioneering innovations with practical industrial application. The mission of university research frequently is “new knowledge for its own sake,” as contrasted with industrial research that supports the mission of the industrial firm. It is not the mission of the university to make new products and provide new services.

The best research supports the mission of the sponsoring organization. The mission of a university is education – not providing telecommunication service, space craft, refrigerators, and so forth. Indeed, the major mission of the university should be education. If doctoral students are to be educated and trained, then they need the opportunity to perform some form of research. After they graduate, these doctorial students then frequently go to work at industry performing practical and relevant work. The career path for doctoral students that seems to be most applauded by the faculty is to graduate and work at another university, where their doctoral students then apply to yet another graduate program – not for industry or on practical problems. “Practical” and “relevant” seem to be characterizations to be avoided at many universities.

Research usually tackled practical problems in support of a real-world mission of the sponsor. A good way for a university to be involved in such research is through a separate for-profit research unit. The researchers would not teach nor be tenured – they would be employees. Patents would be obtained, along with other intellectual property. Students and faculty could also work part-time at the research facility. The management of the research unit would evaluate the research. An issue with university research is that the departmental administration does not evaluate it and instead relies on outside peer review.

The “product” of universities is its graduates. Research universities educate and train doctoral students. As graduates these newly minted doctorates go to work in industry performing propriety industrial research and devolvement. The results of this R&D makes their way back to the university, affecting and refining the topics of research done by faculty and current doctoral students. This is a tight loop.

I have taken a skeptical and controversial tone in this piece. But in the end, what should matter is meaningful research that solves real problems or leads to new knowledge and innovations — not where it is performed. Research should make our lives better through new products and services.

A. Michael Noll

The New Urban Myths of Detroit Internet Use

Friday, January 5th, 2018

Recently we posted a blog that outlined three key findings in our Detroit Digital Divide Project. These findings focused on issues of Internet connectivity, use, and interest among Detroit residents. We argued that the findings of our research run counter to a number of perceptions about Internet digital divides in Detroit, and to a degree that they might be better understood as myths. However, just the recognition of misguided assumptions is not enough. As we continue to analyze the data further, and refine the patterns emerging, the Quello research team has begun to examine what can be done to address these divides in light of our findings.

Below we briefly review these myths before moving to an outline of three possible steps forward.

Myth #1: Detroiters are under-connected
When asked if they have home Internet access, about 78 percent of respondents in our three examined neighborhoods said they do have home access, yet only about 60 percent report having a contract with an ISP. However, almost our whole sample identified themselves as using the Internet in some form. This suggests that Detroiters are finding their way online, but they have to be innovative in order to connect. The problem is that unstable, unreliable or mobile-only connections are simply not good enough.

Myth #2: Detroiters go online primarily for entertainment
Despite claims that Detroiters use the Internet primarily for entertainment purposes, our study found that entertainment and leisure activities are decidedly less central than information seeking and communication activities. In other words, far fewer people are streaming music or watching videos online than the number of people who are emailing, getting news, or health information. For example, just over 50 percent say they go online to watch videos while about 85 percent go online to email.

Myth #3: Detroiters are not interested in home Internet access
We did not find evidence to support the notion that Detroit residents avoid the Internet because of a lack of interest. First, most Detroiters are online. But often, they are limited to using a mobile device to access the Internet. Second, a majority of those who do not have an ISP at home say they would like home access. Third, among those who do not have home access most have access at work or some other public space, and the lack of home access most often comes down to price, not interest. For example, focus group participants who expressed ambivalence on the subject of home access cited barriers such as costs, a loss of family time, and duplication of services as some of the reasons for their “lack of interest”. In other words, among those who say they are not interested in home access are those who have Internet access elsewhere.

Next Steps

A deeper exploration of these three myths requires a discussion of what can and should be done to dispel such misconceptions. For those who care about Detroit and issues of the digital divide, the following guidelines could serve as a starting point for setting the record straight.

To learn more about this research, please visit our Project Page.


Quello Assistant Director to Present Research Findings at TPRC Capitol Hill Briefing

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017

Dr. Bianca (Bibi) Reisdorf, Quello Assistant Director and Assistant Professor in Media and Information, has been invited to present her research findings on race and digital inequalities at the TPRC Capitol Hill Briefing on Thursday, September 7, 2017. Each year, the TPRC (The 45th Research Conference on Communications, Information, and Internet Policy) panel invites four conference presenters to discuss how their research affects policies at a briefing on Capitol Hill on the day prior to the main conference.

This year’s discussion will be moderated by Dr. Carleen Maitland (Pennsylvania State University), who is also the current chair of the TPRC. Speakers include Professor Michelle P. Connolly (Duke University), who will discuss U.S. Spectrum; Dr. Jonathan Cave (University of Warwick), who will present on Privacy andSecurity; and Professor Philip M. Napoli (Duke University), who will present his work on the First Amendment and Fake News. Dr. Reisdorf will present findings from her work with Dr. Colin Rhinesmith, who is an Assistant Professor at Simmons College, and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. In their paper, titled Race and Digital Inequality: Policy Implications, they combined quantitative data analyses using Pew data, American Community Survey data, and FCC Form 477 data with qualitative data from a Benton Foundation study on digital inclusion initiatives in several cities across the US. The combination of these rich data sources brought forward deeper insights into what is keeping some of the economically hardest-hit communities offline and how policy can help increase digital equity. For example, quantitative analyses of data on Kansas City, MO, and Kansas City, KS, emphasized existing digital inequalities along factors such as race, income, and education, and showed that fewer fixed broadband providers offer their services in poor urban neighborhoods. The qualitative case study of digital inclusion initiatives across these neighborhoods, however, showed that local, well-designed digital equity programs have a positive impact in mitigating these inequalities. While federal policies can help to provide more infrastructure and service to hard-hit neighborhoods through programs such as Lifeline, local organizations and policymakers can provide context-specific on-the-ground support that builds on the resources and assets already available in the communities to allow meaningful broadband adoption.

The TPRC Capitol Hill Briefing takes place at the 2075 Rayburn House Office Building on Thursday, September 7, 2017, from 3:30-5:00 P.M. and is open to the public. Please register at if you would like to attend this talk.


Quello Center Presentations for TPRC 2017

Saturday, August 19th, 2017

Faculty and staff of the Quello Center will be actively engaged in this year’s Telecommunication Policy Research Conference (TPRC). The following papers on the schedule for the 45th TPRC Research Conference on Communications, Information, and Internet Policy, at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia:

Social Shaping of the Politics of Internet Search and Networking: Moving Beyond Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Fake News,” by William H. Dutton and Bianca C. Reisdorf (presenter), Quello Center, Michigan State University; Elizabeth Dubois, Department of Communication, University of Ottawa; and Grant Blank, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

“Race and Digital Inequality: Policy Implications,” by C.H. Rhinesmith, Simmons College (presenter), and B.C. Reisdorf, Quello Center.

Price-Cap Regulation of Firms That Supply Their Rivals,” Omar A. Nayeem, Deloitte Tax; and Aleksandr Yankelevich, Quello Center (presenter).

Cyber Security Capacity: Does it Matter?” by William H. Dutton, Quello Center; Sadie Creese, Computer Science, Oxford University; Ruth Shillair, Quello Center (presenter), Maria Bada, Oxford Martin, University of Oxford; Taylor Roberts US Dept of Management and Budget.

Regulating the Open Internet: Past Developments and Emerging Challenges,” by Kendall J. Koning, Department of Media and Information, Michigan State University (presenter); and Aleksandr Yankelevich, Quello Center.

We hope you can join the conference and provide feedback on our papers.

Keith N. Hampton Elected to Sociological Research Association

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

Our Quello Research Fellow, Professor Keith N. Hampton, a Professor in the Department of Media & Information in MSU’s College of Communication Arts & Sciences, has received a prestigious award from the Sociological Research Association (SRA) in being elected as a new member. The SRA is an honor society that elects up to only 14 new members a year, based on their excellence in research. As the officers of SRA noted: “SRA election signifies the esteem of your colleagues in the profession and their enthusiasm for your scholarship.”

Prof Keith Hampton

Professor Hampton joined MSU last year and has already been incredibly active in developing new grant proposals, and continuing his stream of academic publications around use of the Internet in shaping many dimensions of community. He is presently involved with the Quello Center’s research on digital divides and social capital in Detroit, and an ambitious proposal on the future of the Internet and community enabled by next generation broadcast standards.

Our congratulations and thanks to Keith for enhancing the stature of the Center, Department, and College of Communication Arts & Sciences at MSU. It goes without saying that his colleagues share the SRA’s enthusiasm for his scholarship, and particularly his presence and impact on our students, faculty and many colleagues.

Translations of Keystones to Foster Inclusive Knowledge Societies

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Bill Dutton work with UNESCO staff to draft a document for their Connecting the Dots conference, which was entitled ‘Keystones to Foster Inclusive Knowledge Societies‘. It is available online at:

The report was one of the first projects Bill undertook in 2014, when he joined MSU as Director of the Quello Center. Last week, while presenting his work on search and politics at UNESCO, dealing with echo chambers and filter bubbles, he was pleased to hear that the keystones report is now available in eight languages, most recently in Russian, and is continuing to be useful for UNESCO’s discussions of basic principles for guiding policy and practice around the Internet in shaping society.

Bill rolling up sleaves at UNESCO 2017

The Director Presents in Europe on our Quello Search Project

Monday, July 17th, 2017

Bill Dutton had a productive and challenging week in Europe speaking about the Quello Center’s work on search and politics. The findings of our project, called ‘The Part Played by Search in Shaping Public Opinion’, suggested that concerns over fake news, echo chambers, and filter bubbles is ‘overhyped and underresearched’. The project was supported by Google, and the findings and methodology are publicly available online (see references), along with the slides I adapted for each of the particular talks. The slides are posted here:

In Paris, on the 10th and 11th, Bill was able to speak at a UNESCO Knowledge Café for a seminar chaired by the Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger, for UNESCO staff, which included UNESCO’s Xianhong Hu. He then met with members of the French Audio Visual Regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA); and then members of the Ministère de la Culture (Ministry of Culture); and gave a lecture at Sciences Po, which was jointly organized by Thierry Vedel for the MediaLab and CEVIPOF. Bill was also able to meet over lunch with a former colleague in the President’s office at the French National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), which is central to data protection in France.

Thierry Vedel and Bill Dutton

On the 12th, Bill was in Rome, where he first spoke at a roundtable over a wonderful lunch at the Centro Studi Americani – the Center for American Studies. That evening, he spoke on the Terrazza dei Cesari with members of YouTrend, an organization of political communicators in Italy, which was picked up by over a thousand on a Facebook Live video stream. The talk was sandwiched by an aperitif and dinner, and sequentially translated.

American Studies Center in Roma

His last stop was in Berlin, where Bill was able to meet at the Ministry for Culture with representatives of the state media authorities, representing the German Lander governments. He finished his talks with a roundtable at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute für Internet und Gesellschaft (HIIG – Germany’s first Internet Institute), chaired by Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schulz and joined by Professor Dr. Dr. Ingolf Pernice. Bill is a member of HIIG’s Advisory Committee, and noted how great it was to end his trip with a sense of the quality and diversity of faculty, fellows and visitors at the Institute.


This week was an incredible outreach opportunity for the Quello Center to convey the results of our research. The Center wants to thank all of those who helped organize and attended these events; thank all the faculty on the project, including Grant Blank, Elizabeth Dubois, and Bibi Reisdorf, in addition to Bill, as well as our graduate assistants, Sabrina Ahmed and Craig Robertson; and thank our colleagues at Google for their confidence in the Quello Search Project.


Dutton, W. H. Talking Points that Formed the Basis for the Talks in Europe:

Dutton, W.H., Reisdorf, B.C., Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2017), Search and Politics: The Uses and Impacts of Search in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the United States, Quello Center Working Paper available on SSRN:

Dutton, W.H. (2017), ‘Fake News, Echo Chambers, and Filter Bubbles: Underresearched and Overhyped’:

Dutton, W. H. (2017), ‘Bubblebusters’, NESTA.

A catalog of cyber security conferences across Michigan

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

Charles Villanueva manages a “gigantic Cybersecurity Conference Directory which lists nearly a thousand events” – and this is truly incredible. So if you feel you can’t keep up with all the conferences, you are probably not alone. His URL is

The Quello Center is involved in a number of cybersecurity projects, including Oxford Martin’s Global Cyber Security Capacity Building Center at the University of Oxford. See:

Quello Lecture by Professor Barry Wellman on Networked Individualism

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Professor Barry Wellman’s Quello Lecture on ‘Digital Media and Networked Individualism’, given on 26 April 2017 to a packed, standing room only audience at the Department of Media and Information, Michigan State University.

The Quello Center presents: Barry Wellman: "Digital Media and Networked Individualism" from Quello Center on Vimeo.

A Brief Interview with Barry Wellman about his Quello Lecture on Networked Individualism

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Professor Barry Wellman gave a Quello Lecture on Digital Media and Networked Individualism on 26 April 2017. Immediately before he spoke, Professor Bianca Reisdorf interviewed Barry, asking him to provide an overview of his talk, and his thoughts on connected seniors.

Barry Wellman: Interview with the Quello Center from Quello Center on Vimeo.