Where Are the Academics?

Outside of M.I.T., academia hasn’t really been invited to the RFID party. Industry needs their objectivity, says Daniel Deavours, head of the RFID Alliance Lab at the University of Kansas.

By Daniel Deavours, RFID Alliance Lab, University of Kansas

People like to make fun of academics who live in their ivory towers and contemplate deep, irrelevant questions such as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Of course that's not true. The modern academic community is very well grounded in current events. I don't know of any academics that work in ivory towers any more.

When I first got involved with RFID in summer of 2004, I was amazed at the lack of academic involvement with RFID. Usually, before a technology becomes mainstream, it is studied (sometimes ad nauseam) by the academic community. In most cases, that's a good thing, because that kind of scrutiny only makes a technology better in the long run. With RFID, it seems to be the exact opposite. Only now that RFID is in the mainstream are universities getting involved.

When I asked people about other academics involved with RFID, the typical response I would get pointed to the work at MIT, where EPC RFID was developed and research continues. That's great; I have tremendous respect for the work that has come out of MIT. However, one lab with only a handful of researchers can hardly solve all the problems. Neither are they well suited to criticize their own creations, especially now that many of the faculty have strong financial interests in companies based on RFID.

When Bluetooth was being developed, there was a plethora of research conducted on it. When various wireless mobile phone technologies were being developed, it seemed that every research university had someone studying those technologies. Even now, the National Science Foundation spends millions specifically funding the next generation of wireless technology research. To my knowledge, none of it has gone or is going towards the study of RFID.

Recently, a number of small efforts within universities have sprung up to meet the demand, so the situation is no longer as dire as it was a year ago. However, there are consequences to the lack of academic involvement. Here are a few as I see it.
  1. Limited competition among ideas. Universities work in an open environment of competitive ideas, and the best ideas (usually) rise to the top. Corporate research is tainted by the bottom line, and is affected by market positions and political influence rather than objective metrics. The RFID we have now and the next generation of RFID were developed behind closed doors. Do we have the best technology possible?

  2. Inadequate work force. I've received several phone calls from companies looking for interns to help them with their RFID problems, and transfer knowledge from the university to the company. I have a limited budget, and I simply can't support enough students to meet the demand. Neither do I have a course developed (yet) that can teach the next generation of graduates about RFID. Universities are not producing trained applicants for jobs in RFID.

  3. Inefficient markets. The public university exists to serve the public good, and helping companies make an honest profit to sell useful products and services is consistent with that mission. Efficient markets benefit everyone, especially the public good, which is why some companies work to keep the markets inefficient (to make more money). Universities are unbiased third parties that can give objective input to a process, and can help keep the markets efficient. University professors sit on committees of numerous technologies, especially all the 802.11 work. That kind of input is simply not sought out by the commercial RFID community at present.
How can we fix these problems? First, the industry must demand increased participation by the academic community. Second, the academic community must become better organized, but it needs resources to do that. The third part of the solution, therefore, is to support your local university.

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