Microsoft Research SVC and Applied Theory

Most people have heard by now about the closing of the Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Campus (SVC) Lab. It definitely came as a shock to everyone (including other MSR researchers) and many people have commented online about what the lab meant to them and about all the great research that came out of it.

There is something else about MSR SVC, however, that I have always appreciated besides it's great contributions in distributed systems and privacy. It was a lab that was incredibly successful at what I would call "applied theory" research. What I mean by this is research that is motivated by real-world problems but that addresses these problems by developing theoretical insights, models and techniques. Note that this is very different (in my mind at least) from "theoretical theory" which is often more motivated by making advances on long-standing open and difficult problems (independently of the initial motivation).

Applied theory is difficult to carry out and there really aren't many people out there that can do it well. I think the main reason is that it requires researchers (or at least teams) that are really interdisciplinary and have a deep understanding of both practice/systems and theory. Finding these people is very hard and I know this first-hand since I've now been on a non-trivial number of hiring/interview committees. The amazing thing about SVC is that it seemed full applied theory researchers/teams and projects. This always surprised and pleased me because I had never seen that anywhere else.

So, all this to say that MSR SVC will be greatly missed and that I hope that all the brilliant researchers there (applied theorists and otherwise!) will find great homes.