First things first: I think research is a vital part of university life and plays a key role in a university’s ability to deliver on its educational mission. It’s partly an intangible sort of thing and the best way to think about it is to imagine a university with no research activity. Say no more.
But I think an awful lot of the content of academic research is pretty close to useless. I mean ‘useless’ in the sense that it neither tells us anything new or valuable about nature or humanity, nor does it have any impact on economies, societies or culture. It exists in a sort of no man’s land. It reminds me of the ‘alternative’ rock band from the eighties called Pop Will Eat Itself. The basic concept behind the name was that music had become so inward-looking that it existed in a parallel universe where, like energy, it was neither created nor destroyed but simply transformed from one derivative form into another. Academic research often seems a bit like that to me; ideas are constantly tweaked and recycled with little purpose other than ‘getting a paper’ for the researchers. The work adds nothing of value to the sum of human knowledge. It’s as useful as knowing how many bricks there are in your garden wall. Furthermore, there is a substantial school of thought that the direct impact of academic research on economic growth is negligible at best, many studies even suggesting that academic output lags behind economic growth.
But to counter that argument, which tends to be made on the basis of time-series analysis of things like GDP data, scientists will inevitably mention blockbuster discoveries like General Relativity, which underpins GPS technology. And this is the nub of the problem. Academic research can produce discoveries that change worlds – but it does so rarely and often at high cost.
Is there any way we can make it more likely that our research will make important discoveries? The standard suggestion of scientists is that they should be just allowed to follow their curiosity, to allow their imaginations to roam; the discoveries will come and who knows from where and when? The next General Relativity could be just around the corner! No doubt, important discoveries are made this way but the arguments made by scientists for funding curiosity-driven research always seem a bit self-serving to me.
For a future in which paradigm-changing discoveries will become more and more elusive, I think we need to proceed in a different way. I have a theory and it is this: most important discoveries tend to occur not as a chance outcome of blue skies research but as a natural outcome of seeking answers to well-articulated questions. Look at how much we know about fundamental molecular biology because we have sought cures for diseases ranging from congenital disorders to lifestyle-related conditions to infectious diseases like AIDS. As one well-known molecular biologist once said about a particular condition; “The disease has done more for science than science has done for the disease”. Most people get this whole process backwards, failing to see that the basic research has not been driven by curiosity but by the need to solve a real problem. Basic research is the spin-off!
I can’t prove this but I believe that the best way to make transformational discoveries is to set challenging goals, to ask important questions to which the answers are important for humanity – to have a bit of vision in other words. Challenging goals open up new avenues of research, encouraging scientists to venture into areas where they may never have dreamed of venturing; areas that are important not just because they are undiscovered but because they are staging posts on the way to the solution of important problems.
I don’t always agree with my employer but I think DCU, in its determination to address certain “grand challenges” through its research, is setting a good precedent here. There is a lot of talent in universities and we need to use it more to tackle some of the huge challenges confronting humanity. We all need to be doing more than just ‘getting papers’. The key is to address these grand challenges while maintaining diversity within the university – diversity that is essential for the sustainability of the university as a place where young people are educated.