What’s the point of academic research?

19/04/2013 § 9 Comments

I’m still thinking about MOOCs. A university is supposed to be involved in research and teaching, and MOOCs potentially cut into the teaching side of the business. Even if they aren’t as good, they may still take a big chunk of market share. One can buy hand-sewn shirts, but mass-produced shirts are much more common.

So that leaves the research side of the university. What’s the point? Is it to be ‘critic and conscience of society’, which is the New Zealand job description for an academic? Is it to advance knowledge and understanding?

What got me thinking about the topic was this profile of Noam Chomsky by Glen Greenwald. Greenwald, a journalist, has been a relentless critic of the security state that the US has put in place over the last two presidencies. Chomsky, an academic, has been a critic of American hegemony for decades. It is likely that academic tenure has helped Chomsky speak his mind. That is, the economic security of his job allowed him to have ‘a room of one’s own’ (Virginia Woolf) and be a critic of society.

University research, then, might be about providing an environment in which individuals and teams can pursue research, whether that research is criticising society or supporting it. The university buffers researchers from that same society — providing them time for the research to come to fruition, shielding them from reactions when their opinions or findings are unpopular. The uneasy bargain is that society pledges resources to the university — even when it bites the hand that feeds it — because of a belief that ultimately it will be for the social good.

But is it? Or, more precisely, is it at the margin?

And that question takes me to findings like those discussed here:

Consider this tally from Science two decades ago: Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further. In a 2009 article in Online Information Review, Péter Jacsó found that 40.6 percent of the articles published in the top science and social-science journals (the figures do not include the humanities) were cited in the period 2002 to 2006.

So it seems that much university research isn’t even of value to researchers themselves.

There is also discussion of the ‘need’ for academics to contribute more, be more engaged with society, adopt more of a public intellectual stance. Those discussions suggest that society — government, business, the chatterati — might feel that academics aren’t pulling their weight.

Where I’m getting to is this: if MOOCs call into question the near-monopoly of universities for delivering advanced education, then universities will have to lean more heavily on the research function to justify their existence. But, the research side seems anemic, at least at the margin. The additional contribution of the extra dollar of spend seems to deliver little in the way of engagement or criticism. Oddly, the crisis in teaching raises the title question: what’s the point of research?


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§ 9 Responses to What’s the point of academic research?

  • Grant Taylor says:

    A fair enough question, Bill, but not one that it may be possible to answer (well, not fairly anyway: what, after all, is the point of most human endeavour and who gets to judge? But let’s not go there).

    I can be among the first to cast scorn upon our academic friends on any number of accounts – but that is usually a consequence of the foibles of human beings and human institutions rather than the inherent value of what they are in principle mandated to do.

    I think I see research as being like any other creative activity (yes, it is fundamentally creative) – an expression of humanity that can be boring, interesting, useful, useless, ‘got’ by some and misunderstood by others, etc. And society needs it in the same way it needs painters, poets and novelists and should be prepared to support it accordingly.

    The appreciation of value is often quite a private thing and it may not be valid to assess value through citation counts or whatever. For example, those obscure bits of apparently ‘invisible’ research are becoming ever-more discoverable. I am often grateful for the post-grad thesis that pops up in Google Scholar – I might be the only person other than the examiners who has ever read it. Probably, no-one other than me will ever know that I did and found it useful. But it was. I am glad the research was done and recorded somewhere. I am grateful to whoever paid for it – they did a good thing, as far as I am concerned.

    • Bill says:

      I have two reactions to your thoughts, Grant.
      One is the economist’s/researcher’s reaction: how do we measure and analyse the impact of those arcane bits of research? How can we describe the quality of theses and relate the number and quality to economic activity? If there is an impact, it must be discernible, at least partially.
      The other reaction is the non-STEM-scientist perspective: if we are rewarding creativity and waving our hands about it somehow someday producing value, why don’t we take money away from bench scientists and give it to poets and musicians and authors? Sure, it would be nice to have money for everyone, but in the current setting the money is capped and must be allocated. So, how do we know that the allocation amongst different discipline is the right one?

  • FC says:

    Who paid for these little intellectual baubles, Mr. Taylor? Well, tuition fees and taxes. You’re welcome.

    As for Chomsky, tenure as a linguist has given sufficient free time to grow wealthy and famous peddling political tracts.

    • Bill says:

      Hi FC –

      I detect in your comments on Chomsky that you do not approve of his politically focused activities. I would suggest that, if he has indeed become wealthy and famous from them, then he has provided a service that other people have found valuable (by revealed preference). Do you object to people offering services that respond to others’ preferences?

  • Andrew says:

    It seems to me that the ‘public intellectual’ role is one that we in the universities should push harder. It isn’t that we should be seen to be the place of knowledge but (for me at least) to be knowledge’s Other. That is we actually criticise, through theory and research, those ideas that we think stink. Sometimes this feels like building competing positions and then fiercely defending these, though I would hope that research can push past even this typical human endeavour. Personally I simply want to hysterisize the masterful in society… 🙂 Great post Bill.

    • Bill says:

      The way you’re talking about the public intellectual, you are asking for a double under-mining. The ‘critic and conscience’ asks society — who funds the academic — to examine itself and consider its gaps, irrationalities, and failings. A public intellectual could assume this role from a position of authority (the Master discourse). But, the intellectual can also question the role of the university in creating authority — this is both a Lacanian and a Foucauldian position, though they are different. In that case, the intellectual is being critic and conscience of the university as well as society — a potentially tenuous position.

  • Peter Crow says:

    Interesting topic! And, by pure coincidence, one that I discussed (albeit in a business college context) just yesterday. See my blog : http://www.petercrow.com/1/post/2013/04/is-it-time-for-our-business-schools-to-get-closer-to-business.html

    The issue of relevance that you have raised is very real.

    • Bill says:

      Thanks for the link. I think we need to be careful with the argument that universities need to serve businesses more (although I do agree that if you’re teaching about business, you might want to know how it actually happens). Universities are also about reflection and questioning, which may not have direct links to immediately useful information or skills.

      That’s why I’m asking a question rather than making a declaration. I don’t have a ready answer, but I think the ground is shifting and universities need to be able to articulate what they contribute or face losing large parts of their budgets.

  • […] when thinking about developments in university education Bill Kaye-Blake asked What’s the point of academic research? Is it to be 'critic and conscience of society' or is it to 'advance knowledge and understanding'? […]

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