Is software engineering research relevant?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012
I try do be a software engineering researcher. If I scrutinise myself I am an engineer, not a researcher, and a systems engineer on top of that (but with a clear focus on software-intensive systems).

While trying to finish my thesis I often question if I investigate relevant problems from an industrial perspective, which I believe is the only valid perspective in software engineering, everything else is just playing around. Since software development is a completely artificial activity there are not natural phenomena to study, everything is the result of human activity (and ingenuity).

After attending my latest conference, which had a mix of industrial presenters (probably not peer reviewed) and academic presenters (peer-reviewed, of which I was one) I discussed with a colleague. The conclusion we reached was that the academic researchers had a lot of substance in their presentations, but lacked relevance, while the industry presenters had relevant topics, but lacked substance. The latter seemed in many cases more like a sales pitch.
I have also heard in panel debates at other conferences that software research are diverging from industry needs. This is serious! But what is the problem? Are researchers really addressing the wrong thing (I have already complained about formal methods research)? Or is the step from a published research paper to implement it beyond a simplified academic setting too large for practitioners to take? Or are there so many conflicting research "results" that it is impossible to draw any conclusions as a practitioner beyond personal heuristics? In structural mechanics there are the laws of physics that constrain what is working or not, in software there is no clear boundary like that.
Personally I believe it is the gap, it is just not possible for practitioners to grasp how the results are relevant in their context since research is trying to be as general as possible, i.e. trying to cover as many contexts as possible and in the end not being relevant for any context. Resarch results only valid in a specific context (e.g. a deep case study) are considered second-rate by the research community and often does not pass through the eye of the needle.
There are many different views on the relevance, for example read this report on the future of software engineering research.