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The frightening state of academic research

Posted on 2008.01.03 at 17:11
Inside I am...: ranty
Outside there is...: John C. Dvorak - CrankyGeeks 097: Tech Journalism
Tags: , , ,
I am going to sound old in this post. I must talk about "the way things used to be". I am hoping it stirs discussion and you can give me some counter examples.. i really do NOT want to lose faith in the system as much as I feel I have. If this is all too much work, then just blow me off as an old geezer going on about "the good ole days". ( I must also qualify this by saying that I am no longer gainfully employed in research... my statements about the current status is as a third party observer)

Part of the point and pleasure of scientific research for me was always the satisfaction of curiosity. Too many times it sounds like people are wasting money... "giving LSD to an elephant... come on....." that could be better spent on more productive or useful things. But the truth is, you never know when one of the silly excursions of curiosity is going to take you a leap and a bound into the future. A research scientist could make a fundamental and unexpected discovery that literally changes the course of how humans live.
A research scientist in the corporate world generally does not have this freedom, and never has. For the most part, they are there with a mission- discover some new product or drug that can make us money. This has always generally meant taking something that exists and iterating it. Tweaking one or two things to try to make it slightly better, slightly faster, able to kill a new strain of bacteria, etc.. ( The Demon Under the Microscope, by Thomas Hager is a fascinating tale of the very early years of Sulfa Drug enhancement and events that led to a push for patented drugs by drug companies....). If you want to indulge yourself in the pure exploration of human curiosity, you had to earn a coveted University position.
( here comes the old geezer part....brace yourself)

I published my first scientific paper back in 1983. It had to do with the reproductive tract of a previously undescribed hermaphroditic snail. It had no use ( other than an indicator of an ongoing personal interest in all tings quirkily sexual). It never led to anything useful. Not even close. But people all around me were looking at more interesting questions: effects of drugs on mothers, hereditary and stress factors for autoimmune diseases, distribution of beetles in the desert , etc.. And they were all doing pure research. Honest to god, "Hmm... that is weird" sorts of things that led them down a path of discovery. Most of them eventually got published, but the point of the research was to answer a question, not to generate a publication. Publishing was the means to share this cool thing you discovered.

Times change. The push to publish or perish is stronger than ever. The public focus on the stock market and immediate ROI has shifted the way we look at research.

This is how the conversation used to go as time for conference submissions rolled around when I first started doing research:

Major professor: "hey, there is a very cool conference coming up in 6 months that would be a great forum for your research.. the people there would really be interested-- do you have anything you can share with them?"
me: wow.. i have no idea where this is leading-- I can not imagine being ready to publish by then, but I would be interested in going"
Major Professor: "ok, we will see where you stand next time".

About 4 years later the conversations were starting to shift:

Major Professor( different one- different degree): " hey, there is a good conference coming up, and it would be great exposure for you- I want you to find a subset of the data you have been working on and write it up as a small preview paper for this conference"

2 years after that, it was starting to get crazy:

Major Professor: " I know your Degree research is not publishable, so I want you to find two smaller projects you can do that will give you two papers this year"

Now, truth is, with the current culture of academia, that major professor was teaching m good skills of how to get ahead in the publish or perish world. But I contend that that whole eco-system is one that promotes great and capable minds to limit themselves to questions that can be answered in 6-8 months and published after that.

Combine that with a culture of funding that says that research that looks like it will be producing a useful answer, something with guaranteed ROI, and now you have transformed a whole group of people away from doing pure research into a group doing development instead. I do believe that development is important and contributes in its own way. Pure research without development is significantly less useful. Development is what takes innovation and puts it into the hands of the masses. But without new research, continued development eventually leads to stagnation and the same product in a variety of colors.

Luckily, there is still some research being done... but more and more, it is being confined to corporate America-- and thus is only in the areas where they foresee making a profit from it eventually, not in areas just because someone woke up wondering about it this morning. Maybe we need to start a campaign-- support the research scientist-- sort of like the feed a child campaign.


going_not_gone at 2008-01-03 22:17 (UTC) (Link)
Research and development=good.
Research OR development=not so much.

Because without original research of the sort that occasionally leads nowhere, there's rarely anything original to develop, just incremental improvements to older ideas.

JKT Skinner
rethought at 2008-01-04 11:08 (UTC) (Link)
I agree. The publish or perish ethos makes my blood boil. I have to not only try to compete with it, but have to listen to papers like 'The Imagery of Frogs in Revelation'. *headdesk*

I believe that inquiry should be open ended if research is to be fully explored. Sure, give us an update on what you're doing ('Research into Revelation Imagery') but don't chop it up into soundbyte type nonsense (as above).

I feel like I'm constantly hampered by this. I know that if I go too far down a research path that isn't publishable that it will be time wasted. So, I have difficulty getting the publishable finished because my heart isn't in it.
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