We may have entered the wrong carriage on the train from Cambridge to London; we are sure at least that the people having this conversation did not know that we overheard them. We did not take notes, but this is what we think they said:

- As you understand, the secret must be kept using any means necessary.

- I can’t see how we can control all the researchers in the world. Some may stumble into this area, and an ingenious mind may discover the secret.

- We will follow a strategy to avoid disclosure. First, we have established a set of large research projects, each with significant funding and a very clear focus area. The idea is to direct researchers to these areas that are far from the secret. There will be no chance that anyone will go in an unwanted direction.

- But can we finance every researcher?

- No, this is not necessary. We have established these programs in areas that will be of interest to most institutions and most scientists. It is not necessary to fund everyone. They will all be preoccupied with writing proposals. For those that get funding, we have established a clear focus for their research, but we have achieved the same for the others. A central idea of this plan is asking for very detailed proposals. Then the researchers will largely be preoccupied with filling out forms. There is no need to finance them all. Using this plan, we have ensured that all scientific work, either through research or writing proposals, is performed in the areas that we have found acceptable.

As a part of this plan, we have stressed the need for many different research institutions to be in on the same proposal. Not only does this lead to bureaucracy, but it also ensures that the institutions all follow the same track. For example, to get funding there must be a large overlap among the research areas of all institutions. The one research group that chooses a special research area will find no one to work with, will not get funding, and eventually will be forced to direct their research to the areas that we have defined.

Of course, there may be individual researchers who try to go their own way, trying to manage without funding. We have a plan here as well. It is in three steps.

First, we establish that only a limited number of journals count, asking researchers to publish there and only there. We achieve this by saying that only publications in these journals will be used to determine promotion and grants. To get support from university management we will also rank universities according to publications in these journals. Of course, the ranking system includes only the journals that are in the research areas that we accept. Only publications in these journals will be used to assess quality and productivity. I don’t need to add that none of these journals cover areas close to the secret.

As a side effect, these journals will strengthen their position when everyone submits to them. It will then be nearly impossible to establish journals in new areas. These journals will start at the bottom of the ranking, if they get ranked at all, and will therefore not get many submissions. They will therefore be marginalized at the very beginning.

The second step is to demand many publications of each researcher. To be eligible for promotion and grants, one must not only publish in the right journals but also be able to present many publications. Researchers will be kept preoccupied. To avoid discovery of the secret, it is better that scientists write rather than think. Not all countries adhere to this principle, but we are working on it.

Third, we will ensure that a researcher’s ability to get funded is an important factor in the hiring and promotion process. That is, if we manage to control funding, at least by keeping it away from the areas close to the secret, we also control who will get the faculty positions in universities and colleges. All in all, we feel confident that no researchers will go their own way and be able to choose research areas themselves.

We have been worried about conferences. These are more difficult to control than journals. With many scientists in the same room there is always the chance that some will have an idea that may evolve too close to the secret for comfort. Even an offhand suggestion may be dangerous in a stimulating atmosphere. There are numerous examples from history that this has happened, such as the discussions that world-famous physicists and philosophers had at various universities in the 1930s.

Our strategy here also consists of three parts. First, we have tried to avoid ranking conferences, and our suggestion to give zero appraisals for conference papers has been accepted in many countries. This should make conferences less interesting for the top scientists. Second, we have tried to make conferences so large, and offer so many parallel sessions, so there is little chance that the scientists who might be able to discover the secret would find themselves in the same room at the same time.

Third, just to be sure, we have established economic incentives to have all sessions filled with prepared presentations, reducing the time for discussions to a minimum. Even if someone should be inspired, the inspiration will soon be terminated by the session chair introducing the next speaker. This is a consequence of the rule that universities demand that one must give a talk to get travel expenses covered. Conference organizers have adjusted to this rule by allowing numerous speakers, hence the number of parallel sessions filled to the brim with presentations.

There is no chance that anyone will go off on their own track. We know that this has happened previously. We could mention Darwin and Einstein and many, many more. But this was in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, a time for pioneers. The amateur scientist today will not get accepted by the right channels, will not get funding, and will not be able to get research positions. In fact, even the gifted amateur will not be heard.

We have also made an evaluation of the threat from commercial research but have found that this offers no problem. Not only is most of commercial research performed in traditional research areas, but we always have the option of buying any company that gets too close to the secret. However, we feel that this should not be necessary; research outside university should pose no problem. And, with the measures presented above, we are quite confident that there will be no cutting-edge innovations either from universities.

I would like to add that these measures are implemented today without anyone noticing. As you see, we have achieved our goals of safeguarding the secret without violating any principle of free research. We don’t arrest researchers, we don’t ask them to stop working, we don’t fire professors, we don’t close down journals or conferences, and we allow research in a wide range of topics – that is, as long as it doesn’t get close to the secret. This is not the political control of scientific research in the Soviet Union nor the false research of Lysenkoism. There is a cost, however. The measures described above may not only guard the secret but as a side effect may also effectively stop other research breakthroughs in universities.

- Does this strategy have a name?

- Yes, we call it NPM.


Kai Olsen is a professor in informatics at Molde College, the University of Bergen and OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway and an adjunct professor at the School of Information and Computing, University of Pittsburgh. He has more than forty years of academic experience in the area of Information Technology and has published many books and papers within this area. See for example Olsen, Kai A. (2012) How Information Technology Is Conquering the World: Workplace, Private Life, and Society, Scarecrow Press, December 2012 (ISBN 978-0-8108-8720-6) or A Cash-Free Society, Whether We Like It or Not, Rowman and Littlefield (ISBN 978-1-4422-2742-2) - to appear in July. He is also an enthusiastic skier and hiker, and has produced a large set of guidebooks for the northwest part of Norway (www.turbok.no). Brittveien 2, N-6411 Molde, Norway. + 47 40287150. Kai.Olsen@himolde.no

Alessio Malizia is a Senior Lecturer at Hertfordshire University London and a distinguished speaker of the ACM; he lives in London but is a “global soul” and has been living in Italy, Spain, and the United States. He is the son of a blacksmith, but thereafter all pretensions of manual skills end. Alessio began his career as a bearded computer scientist at Sapienza– University of Rome and then, after an industrial experience in IBM and Silicon Graphics, moved on with his career in research. He was a visiting researcher at the Xerox PARC, where he was appreciated for his skills in neural networks and as a peanut butter and chocolate biscuits eater. He worked as associate professor (and Spanish tapas aficionado) at the University Carlos III of Madrid. In 2012 he joined Brunel University London and, in 2018, Hertfordshire University. a.malizia@herts.ac.uk.