A few people have asked me my opinions on Oded Goldreich's essay On Struggle and Competition in Scientific Fields. I read through Oded's essay I expected to highly disagree with Oded, after all he attacks competition, which is just un-American, and he lays some blame on a small number of scientists "especially those holding administrative positions in the field" which as SIGACT chair puts me in that group.
But as I read the essay, I find myself agreeing with much of what he says. Our conferences have become too much more like competitions rather than focusing on distributing knowledge or bringing the community together. I also agree with many of his suggestions including having conference with more plenary talks, that program committees should create a "program" more than just choosing best papers and that hiring/promotion committees should focus more on the research itself rather than the decisions of program committees, awards committees and grant committees.
There is an faulty underlying assumption in Oded's essay that competition within theoretical computer science is a zero-sum game. Theoretical computer science competes within computer science for faculty slots and grant money. Computer science competes with other sciences and science competes with other needs.
SIGACT is not in the business of choosing winners and losers within the community but rather to promote the field to help increase the number of jobs and grants available to theoretical computer science. As I mentioned last week, awards are an important mechanism that lets us highlight the important research in theory.
Competition for grants, jobs, awards and just attention of other computer scientists helps make us all better allowing us to push for more resources for theory. It would be nice to say that we should just all do good self-motivated research, but the reality is we need those resources if we want theoretical computer science to continue to thrive.