In general, is a position in academia the best way to contribute to a field of study?

In general, are contributions to a particular scientific field made from an industry position as impactful as contributions (to the same field) made from an academic position?

For example, say, you worked in one of the best teams/labs in industry for a given field (e.g. IBM or Google for a technology-related field). Can you produce work that rivals the work produced by some of the best academic groups/labs in that field (e.g. from MIT or Caltech for a technology-related field)?

Or is it that, although the people at these industry positions work with the latest ideas in the field, they don't (actively) contribute back to the field? I.e. they don't produce new ideas w.r.t. the field, but rather work on implementing the newest ideas in the field in commercial products?

Is it correct to assume that, in general, in a given field, a top researcher from industry has less understanding of the field (as a whole) compared to a top researcher from academia?

I realise that the question is perhaps a bit subjective, but as academics, if you were in an industry position, working on the same (or very similar) things you are working on now, do you think you could and would contribute as much to your respective field as you are contributing now?

The question is not about being active in academia from an industry position. I know that is possible. My question is, rather, about the quality, and to a lesser extent the quantity, of work.

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    First of all, you have several questions. Second, people in academia and in industry rarely study the same thing. Even if similar, their goals, timescales are very different. Third, the notion of quality is very vague, esp. if we speak so general without specifying the field and industry. The chances of someone working at biotech or nanotech and someone working in a bank as mathematician are rather different. – Greg Sep 30 '15 at 1:16
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    I voted to close as "Too Broad" based on the first sentence "In general, ...". – scaaahu Sep 30 '15 at 4:48
  • @Greg - Thank you for your input. This is my first question, so I thought there will be problems. That being said, even though I have several questions, I think they all try to probe for the same piece of information - namely, the difference in research between (the top groups/teams/labs in) industry and academia. About your second point, I realise that perhaps industry and academia don't overlap as much as I thought, but I'm interested in the cases where they do (which I thought was clear from the qustions). – 101010111100 Sep 30 '15 at 6:00
  • @Greg - And about your third point, even if the notion on quality is often very vague, especially on a paper-per-paper basis, I assume it is not so much for good research papers. E.g. papers that you just know are great, papers for which after you've read them you can say "Hmm, that is some great work these people have done." And lastly, I don't think working in a bank (and please, correct me if that is wrong) is a good research position for a mathematician, hence it is not what I'm asking. – 101010111100 Sep 30 '15 at 6:05

Speaking as a researcher in industry, there is absolutely no reason to think industrial research need be inferior to university research. Top industry labs and top university labs regularly both compete and collaborate.

Industrial labs and university labs do tend to have somewhat different strengths and weaknesses, however. The key difference is the fact that universities tend to be based around students, while industry tends to be based around employees, which has the following implications:

  • Students (and especially undergraduates) are much cheaper than industry employees, and so it is much easier for universities to take risks.
  • Employees are much more predictable and reliable in their work, so industry research can take on bigger and more complex tasks.
  • It is OK for papers-per-person-per-year to be much less in industry, so industrial research can do projects that require more infrastructure and less "sexy" work---even though they may be just as important a piece of research.

Now, it's true that most of the industrial world is not doing good research, or even any research at all. That is, however, also true of the world of education. For the top groups, however, I would suggest that the right way to think about it is not even "industry vs. university," but about complementarity and partnerships between the two, as both sides tend to be acutely aware of their advantages and disadvantages and therefore frequently collaborate in order to get the best of both worlds on their projects together.

  • Thank you very much for your answer. It is exactly the type of answer I was hoping for. – 101010111100 Sep 30 '15 at 6:10

In computer science, and in math, people at AT&T and IBM labs have done very significant contributions. I'm sure you will find other examples all over the place. If you dig around the CVs of some of computer science stars, you'll find they didn't always (or even exclusively) work in academia.

The benefit of working at such a lab seems to have been freedom from teaching and academic management hassles.

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