Academics worry over Microsoft's Silicon Valley research lab closing

A number of academics have submitted an open letter to Microsoft Research management protesting the recent closing of the company's Silicon Valley research lab.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft's abrupt closing of the Microsoft Research lab in Silicon Valley last month have some researchers worried about the company's commitment to theoretical research.


A number of major academics from around the country are none too happy about how Microsoft handled the layoffs and closing of its Silicon Valley lab. On October 14, they posted an open letter to Microsoft Research management expressing their dismay over the decision.

On September 18, Microsoft officials acknowledged the company would be cutting 2,100 jobs across the company worldwide as part of the previously announced layoffs of 18,000 disclosed in July 2014. As part of the second round of cuts, Microsoft announced it would be closing completely the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley lab.

"While layoffs are always unpleasant, the impact of this one has been exacerbated by the fact that many researchers at the Silicon Valley lab worked on long-term, fundamental research of the kind that can be done at very few places outside of academia," according to the open letter, signed by a number of researchers from Carnegie Mellon, University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, MIT and other universities.

(The drafting of the letter was led by the Association of Computing Machinery SIGACT Committe for the Advancement of Theoretical Computer Science, the letter says.)

The letter claims that Microsoft's reputation as an organization "that not only valued basic research but also supported the career development of the many researchers that worked in or visited the labs" has been damaged.

"As faculty members, we can no longer recommend it (Microsoft) as highly to our students as a place to start their careers," the letter states.

In the past year plus, I've felt Microsoft has shifting its research focus to be more about applied research than theoretical research. According to various sources of mine, the company has been upping the pressure on research teams to find champions or homes inside the company that are interested and willing to turn their research projects into commercial products.

Beyond the theoretical vs. applied research debate, there also is worry by some that Microsoft hasn't taken appropriate actions around saving and/or transferring the intellectual property upon which the members of the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley lab were working.

Microsoft officials said back in September that the company would attempt to find homes for some of the 50 Silicon Valley researchers who worked in the now-closed lab. Even after the lab's closing, Microsoft still has 2,500 employees working for the company in the Silicon Valley area including individuals working on Skype, Yammer, Bing, Outlook.com and Xbox.

I've asked the company for comment on the open letter. 

Update (October 22): Microsoft has posted a response to the open letter, in the form of a letter from Microsoft Executive Vice President of Technology & Research Harry Shum.

From Shum's letter:

"I share with all of you a strong belief in the value of fundamental research and its importance for the long-term viability of our company, our industry and our society, and want to reassure you of Microsoft’s commitment to fundamental research."

Read his response in full here.

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