Friday, February 13, 2009

Research for What?

Dan RichardDan Richard

Office of Faculty Enhancement

Forgive me, but I am a researcher. I remember when I suffered through academic job interviews for assistant professor positions. I often was asked a somewhat strange but, from the perspective of the questioner, a hopefully informative question, “If you had to choose only one, would you prefer to be only a teacher or only a researcher?” The interviewer then would look on with a quiet resolve, a Solomon-worthy stare. My answer: “A teacher.”

You might be surprised by my response given the start of my post, but my reasoning was (and still is) that the concept of research is such a part of my world-view, such a part of my values and ideals, that I would be a researcher no matter the context of the rest of my life. If I worked at McDonald’s, I would research the flipping of burgers or the crisping of fries. It is a part of who I am.

This is why a recent question at the ICRSLCE conference gave me pause. The leaders of the conference announced that the theme for next year’s conference will be “ Research for what?” This question sparked a number of other questions for me. For now, let me focus on the central question and try to make some sense out of its focus and purpose.

“Research for What?” suggests that, whatever research endeavor we choose, the outcomes of our research should have some purpose or application, that someone should want to know about the outcomes of the research. I believe that every researcher, because of their own intrinsic interest in their work, naturally think that their research IS interesting AND important (see 1Richard, et al. 2002), and that others would benefit from knowing about their research innovations and findings.

Of course, knowing the impact of one’s work is no easy task. Some publishing companies provide journal impact ratings (to evaluate the impact of articles that have been published within a particular journal), and the APS has provided a new score (h-index) to measure the scholarly impact of the entirety of one’s work. There are citation counts, invited works, and even Google rankings as well as a myriad of other techniques that researchers use to evaluate the scholarly impact of their work.

But the impact and relevance that these researchers, educators, and community scholars were referring to would not likely be captured by such narrow, bean-counting type measures. They were talking about the relevance and impact that one’s research has on the community (any community). So often, in the pursuit of knowledge, of recognition, or of tenure, scientists focus on the making of discoveries rather than on making a difference. The “new discovery” is valued in science so much that it often comes at the expense of relevance, impact, and the importance to the broader community.

This idea is a challenge to my earlier commitment to research. I conduct research because it has value to ME. I do research that is meaningful to ME. I, that’s right, I enjoy research. The research question, “Research for what?” reveled to me how selfish I am when it comes to research. If the project makes sense to me or to my career, then I will pursue it. How ego-centric?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that researchers should give up basic research or abandon their passion for the work they do. I am not suggesting that we offer up quality, basic research as some altruistic sacrifice for the god of community.

I am suggesting that researchers, especially those who love what they do, are at risk of doing research that is so relevant to themselves and so irrelevant to anything else, that the quality of the research is undermined. I am suggesting that applied research, research that is informed by purpose, including community purpose, has a much greater chance of being quality research than projects that focus simply on a faculty member’s research agenda, career path, or personal vim and vigor.

Perhaps one conclusion from all of this questioning and personal reflection is that quality research IS research that has value to someone other than oneself, and the highest quality research is research that has value to many other people who share a common fate, those who are attempting to improve themselves -- a community.

So now I have a meaningful question I can ask myself, my colleagues, and my students that will help increase the quality of our research --“Research for what?”

1Richard, F. D., Bond, C. F., Jr., & Stokes, J. J. (2002). “That’s Completely Obvious . . .and Important”: Lay Evaluations of Social Psychological Findings. Personalityand Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 497-505.


Anonymous said...


I think you raise some interesting points here. I too consider research an intrinsic part of who I am. I couldn't agree more that research that focuses only on a "faculty member’s research agenda, career path, or personal vim and vigor..." has a lower likelihood of being quality research. With that said, let me play the Devil's advocate. What about basic research with a purpose? Wouldn't you agree that some of the most extraordinary advances in science have resulted from basic research that often had "simple" discovery as its only purpose?


Dan Richard said...

My intention is not to minimize the impact or minimize the importance of "basic" research. I agree that basic research is valuable. I believe that basic research does not have its entire definition in the phrase, "it is research with the absence of purpose." Although basic research may be conducted with "simple" discovery as its primary purpose, it is my impression that basic research often is fueled by practical, social, and economic concerns. My main point is that we should identify and question the motives.

A quote by Albert Einstein seems to apply:
"A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem."

Thanks for the comment.