Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On Domain Knowledge Jumps

How do you go from a field in which you are a specialist to a new one without starting from scratch ? The issue here is that most of the time, you are bound to go back to New Area 101 and fast forward on the sub-areas you know everything about while slowing down dramatically to learn the new lingo and even the community. It can take some time: Time you don't have. What are the shortcuts ?

One can read what researchers in your field have done in this new area, but it exposes you to two drawbacks: their biases become your bias and the low hanging fruits have already been picked. One can always knock on the door of a faculty/researcher in another department. It really is a good way to have access to domain knowledge and reasoning as to why certain things are done a certain way. A top concern is to understand the constraints of the field by asking not-so-dumb dumb questions. But what happens if the subject is too new or that something is not investigated in your area or that your questions are really that dumb ? Things can become real awkward...

Libraries, Wikipedia, the blogs are your only hope after that. It will take time to make of sense of the new area of interest by first going through reviews then through specialized knowledge. What is really likely to happen is that the search will be molded by what has already been done, not by what is needed.

All is not lost, a good shortcut is provided by the reports issued by the National Academies Press. In the U.S., this organization is used by different stakeholders such as government agencies ( NSF, NASA, DOE) or the Office of Science and Technology Policy to provide some summaries or blue sky assessment of generic or detailed subjects of importance to them. One of the intent is to provide the generic constraints of these new subjects of science and technology to lawmakers and/or the executive branch so that they can efficiently allocate funding in the future. In short, these assessments pretty much work like the Technology readiness Level at a meta-level. While the TRL scale enables the evaluation of a specific technology with regards to its maturity and its attendant funding level requirement, the NAP reports provide a similar evaluation of subject areas and provide stakeholders an idea of what needs or doesn't need sustained funding effort.

In particular, and this is something I did not understand until I was involved in the plutnonium disposition program, these agencies or stakeholders pay the National Academy of Sciences or  the National Academy of Engineering to organize one or several workshops on a specific topic of interest to them. Once the contract is in place, the academy, in connection with the funder, use its prestigious network to identify key people who will make that workshop relevant. One of the end products -besides the obvious networking of scientists who come to these meetings- are workshop reports that provide enough insight for specialists of other areas to make more rapidly the connection between their subject areas and this new topic or problematic. Those reports are also very useful even for specialists as it provides them with a template for the Big Picture.

Over the years while reading this blog, you may have noticed my mentioning of the following reports to provide some context while highlighting specific issues:

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