3rd level research: He who pays the piper calls the tune?

Guest Post by Joe MacDonagh, School of Business and Humanities ITT

Greg is taking a well-earned break from this blog and his DCU research and lecturing duties. I’m guest writing on the hanging question in his last post: why should the state fund educational research?

As a psychologist who researches and lectures I have a different, social science, perspective to Greg, but one which is not altogether different. The key challenge he set was going into a hard-nosed Dragon’s Den type setting to justify state funding for academic research.

Though funding applications are long, sometimes tedious, and requiring writing which is hard to leave to others it, thankfully, doesn’t involve presenting to a bunch of incredulous businesspeople. Nevertheless, having to think through what good will come from one’s research may mean less scientific dead ends and less chance of being parodied in the ig Nobel awards and the like.

To those imaginary Dragons I would say that there is a measureable and discernible benefit from science, engineering and computing research. Explaining why we should bother with basic, rather than applied, research may take a little longer; the full benefits of the discovery of DNA can now be seen many decades after Franklin, Crick and Watson’s work in the explosion of commercial applications to most parts of everyday life, which even the Dragons would accept, presumably.

Harder to justify is funding in the social sciences and the humanities. Consequently, these areas are less well funded. In my area, psychology, one can point to how more research can inform how Irish society treats those with mental health issues. Those with mental health issues, particularly depression, often have chronic health problems. Aside from the human and moral aspect of helping these people live better lives, helping them to be healthier would be less of a drag on our health system and so save the state money.

Less easy to justify but, I believe, eminently justifiable, is humanities research. For a country with, in the main, poor foreign language skills, research into languages is important. But those entrepreneurial Dragons might look more coldly at history, folklore or even Latin and classical studies. This is, for me, the hardest argument to make in the public sphere and one which gets to the heart of the purpose of universities and third level colleges.

The monks of old in Oxford and Cambridge who instructed the original undergraduates could conduct their research, or scholarship, with little expense and just needing time to do so. Research of all sorts, particularly in the sciences, medicine and engineering, is now expensive. So why not drop humanities research and make room for “real world” research which is patentable and commercialisable?

Simply put, without a knowledge of our history we will forget the lessons of the past or, as George Santayana put it much better- “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. That’s the quote most often used in this context but I prefer Cicero’s comment: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child”. The presence of academics from humanities disciplines, including folklore, literature, history of art and classical studies, helps to inform public debate on what we value so that we don’t repeat past failed social experiments.

In Ireland you only have to look at the popularity of historical, artistic and literature texts to see how much they contribute to the Irish psyche and to the need for self-understanding. And that’s their value; infusing society with something ineffable and unquantifiable but beneficial nevertheless. They’re like a vestigial organ; it doesn’t seem important but take it away and the whole isn’t as healthy and doesn’t thrive as well.

At this stage the Dragons may have pulled a lever and I may have gone down a trap door but still such a process is useful as it should make us in the academy better promote the worth of what we do. We need to work together on research more as I see duplication in a lot of Irish colleges, with an increasing “me too” approach to funding. Every college can’t have exactly the same kit and the same super expensive machines. Specialisation would encourage critical masses of researchers and would save money which could be spent elsewhere in an increasingly challenging environment for research.

Where we should specialise is an argument for another day but to any Dragon types out there wondering about the cost efficiency of current research spend just look at: the pharmaceutical companies situated in Ireland, the burgeoning computer gaming sector, our prominent role internationally in medical devices manufacturing, how we need to understand our high rates of depression and suicide and how good research informs teaching. A vibrant research sector means more graduates who think critically and it can contribute to a thoughtful and considered society.

Thanks for reading this far and thanks to Greg for letting me write this guest post.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to 3rd level research: He who pays the piper calls the tune?

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » 3rd level research: He who pays the piper calls the tune?

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