The research game
1 July 2014 1 Comment
People often say that research, and particularly research funding, is a bit of a game. It isn’t meant as a compliment.
When people say this, they are usually complaining about being excluded. They go on to talk about how you need to be ‘in the know’, about how people on funding bodies give money to their ‘mates’. Often they spend a fair amount of energy trying to work out how to game the system.
Not surprisingly, I don’t subscribe to those views.
I subscribe to the view that research funding agencies work hard to make sure that they are as fair as they can be. I believe that, while there are historical biases in most systems of funding, they do a very good job of channelling funds to the best researchers available. And that, in general, our funding models serve us well.
It is worth thinking about how the research cycle works, and it doesn’t help to disparage it too much.
Given my role, I think about research a lot. Mostly I’m thinking about the funding application that is sitting right in front of me at that moment. When I have a chance, though, I like to look at research through different lenses and from different perspectives. If you want to learn more about what you do, look at it from a paradigm outside your own.
In that spirit, I’d like to take a moment to look at three different types of computer games as metaphors for the research process. Despite my attempt to dress it up in fancy words, there isn’t anything very special going on here – I just think it will be fun.
Minecraft is my metaphor for how the research process is usually presented. For those that aren’t familiar with Minecraft, it is an incredibly popular game where you can create things with building blocks. You can share the things that you create and others can build them too. Because the building blocks are programmable, you can build things that can do things. This can get fairly complex.
Stories about Minecraft often feature heroes labouring alone to create amazing objects (like a 1:1 scale Star Destroyer from Star Wars http://startsautomatically). They often describe brilliant hacks that allow people to extend the game in clever ways. These sound like research stories to me: the lone genius creating the future; breakthrough moments; sharing knowledge to create new possibilities.
While this makes for great news copy, it isn’t how most research works. With a few exceptions, research is a team activity, not a loner’s game. If you are doing your PhD right now, enjoy the peace and quiet because it is probably the last piece of research that you will ever do alone.
Research is incremental, with teams of people making tiny advances. Each tiny step forward helps to advance an overall cause. Taken together, they are incredibly powerful, but no single advance makes a breakthrough.
While most research is share-able (and much of it needs to be repeated to be validated), there is a significant amount that isn’t. Locked behind patents, non-disclosure agreements, and other commercial arrangements, it can’t be shared. Replicating it is difficult at best and, at worst, illegal.
World of Warcraft
In massively multiplayer online roleplaying games, teams of people work together to overcome significant obstacles. Each person has their part to play – their characters are often very specialised. While each person operates independently, they really come into their own when they work together as a team. If they are trying to tackle a big opponent, they might have to repeat their process many times to get it right. It can be frustrating when it doesn’t work, and exhilarating when it does.
Teams come together, teams fall apart. There is often intense rivalry between these teams. People sometimes move to different servers (generally based in different countries) and join new teams. That sounds like most research labs to me.
Massively multiplayer games are only played by a fraction of the population, but the people who do play are often very dedicated, playing a lot more than most other computer game players. Again, that sounds like most researchers to me: a small group who are very dedicated to what they do.
Massively multiplayer games enable people to learn how to work together with a large number of people that they have never met, often from other cultures and across languages barriers, to solve common problems and build towards a common goal. If the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton (it wasn’t, but that’s another story), then I think that the wicked problems of the 21st Century could well be solved in World of Warcraft.
These games are designed to suck time and money from people who are looking for a simple diversion. The tasks are simple and mindlessly repetitive. They are often solitary games, or games with limited social interaction. They can be enormous time-sinks.
For me, they represent the sort of research that generates papers for no particularly useful purpose other than academic promotion. The methodologies are mundane, outcomes predictable, and results never cited. In my darkest times, I fear that my own research is Farmville research.
At its worst, Farmville research creates nothing new. It consumes PhD and faculty effort without actually advancing anything much at all. It is research for its own sake, produced from a factory that just feeds on itself. The whole process is designed to generate papers without purpose, without any reasonable rationale, without end.
Even here, I do find some cause for hope. There have been various (mostly ill-fated, in my opinion) attempts to harness the time spent on click-farming games. Let’s turn it into productive time. Let’s use each click to analyse data. Let’s turn these games to a social good.
In the same way, I hope that each of these uncited papers offers some small nugget of truth. At the moment, they are not really contributing to a coherent body of knowledge. I dream of a time when we develop the tools and the techniques to mine the outputs of Farmville research. A time when we can scoop up the millions of papers being written and extract the skerrick of knowledge from each one; to combine, refine, eliminate the dross, and mould the remaining information into useful ingot. We need something we can build with, which brings me back to where I started…