My research is better than your research

Fairies attacking and colonising a hedgehog.

The Fairy Horde and the Hedgehog Host, by Tessa Farmer.

In 1986, when I was working for the Australian Research Grants Committee (the precursor to the Australian Research Committee), one of my committee members, the wonderfully idiosyncratic Bede Morris said,

“They sent me a research plan to fill out. I wrote across the front, ‘If I knew what I was going to be doing in five years, you should sack me!’, and sent it back to them.”

At the time, I didn’t understand exactly what he was talking about. He was talking to other members of the committee, senior researchers like himself. I was a junior bureaucrat with little or no experience in how universities or research really worked.

In the early 1990s, when I started working for universities, I learnt what he had been talking about.

Since the 1980s, the Australian government has been asking Australian universities to focus their research efforts.

By the mid-1990’s, all universities were required to develop Research Management Plans. These plans were intended to be university-level documents that outlined key areas of strength and areas for future growth.

The government used these plans as part of the process of deciding which university should get research infrastructure funding. They were a way to try to focus funding towards areas of strength and growth.

At the same time, Australian universities and institutes were being encouraged to amalgamate. I remember sitting in meetings where the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Victoria University of Technology were trying to work out how research funding would be divided if they were to amalgamate. From my point of view, it came down to ‘My research is better than your research’ – neither organisation had any substantial data or way of measuring the quality of their research.

A few years later, I was working at a research centre and the head of the centre had difficulty explaining where their research would fit into the university research plan. She used John Seely Brown’s concept of ‘pioneering’ research, and compared it to ‘sustaining’ research:

“Sustaining research involves the careful analysis of the status quo to determine, for instance, its effectiveness. There are well-established methodologies for this work. The other kind of research he described as pioneering. It is creative of new ideas, products, and is not capable of being referenced in the present because it will need to find its place in the future.” (Nevile 2005)

For years, I used these descriptors to try to move people away from ‘pure’ vs ‘applied’. Before it was an institute of technology, RMIT University was a ‘working man’s college’. Our work has always been applied, and we are very proud of the applied nature of our research. But sometimes we seemed to have a chip on our shoulder, too.

The researchers that I worked with in the 1990s seemed to think that they would get more government support, or would be better off, if their work was somehow ‘purer’, more ‘basic’. So, I would talk to them about ‘sustaining’ versus ‘pioneering’ research to provide them with a different perspective. It took the conversation away from pure versus applied and opened it up so that we could think about these things in different terms.

When I was drafting the document, I thought I should go back and check the actual reference. As far as I can tell, John Seely Brown first talks about ‘pioneering research’ in Research That Reinvents the Corporation. In it, he situates pioneering research as a ‘third way’ that combines the best of applied and basic research.

“Like the best applied research, pioneering research is closely connected to the company’s most pressing business problems. But like the best basic research, it seeks to redefine these problems fundamentally in order to come up with fresh- and sometimes radical – solutions.” (Brown 1991)

At the time that he wrote this (1991), he was Director of the Xerox PARC research centre. He says that he is concerned that many companies at the time are moving their research departments away from “radical breakthroughs towards incremental innovation”. He believes that Xerox produces incremental innovations all the time, and that his research centre is “trying to design new uses of technology that leverage” those innovations.

In my current role, I work with artists, designers, and architects (among others). They talk about practice-based research. That is, research where the process of creating something (like an artwork, a design, or model) is the research methodology, as well as being the research output. I also work with people who use design processes as part of their research methods. I sometimes get the feeling that they feel like they’re struggling against a world that doesn’t understand. Their work doesn’t get funded because they aren’t working within the favored paradigm.

As Peter Woelert pointed out recently, the Australian research system has become obsessed with comparative research quality since the 1980s. This has resulted in Australian university research becoming more and more homogenous, as sector-wide quality measures are adopted as measures to compare different sections within universities, and finally become measures of individual output.

Everybody wants to do the research that produces the outputs that are favoured by the government. Everybody who isn’t doing that sort of research feels like they are on the outer.

In fact, the funding processes are designed to compare universities, not individuals. Universities can define their own internal quality measures if they want. I think we need a few more people like Bede Morris, who are prepared to do the research that they believe needs to be done, no matter what their university wants.

Everything old is new again

As a postscript, in writing this article I came across the work of P. C. Mahalanobis. In 1964, when he was talking about priorities for science in underdeveloped countries, he provided definitions of different types of research:

“A.2.1. Pioneering research in which there is an attempt to break fresh ground.

A.2.2. Incremental research in which the attempt is to achieve its purpose by step by step advances from well established positions; such research is of the greatest importance in both science and technology.”

(Mahalanobis 1964)

People have been trying to define and refine these sorts of comparative descriptions for a long time.

————————-

References

Brown, John Seely. 1991. “Research That Reinvents the Corporation.” Harvard Business Review 80 (8): 102–11.

Mahalanobis, Prasanta Chandra. 1964. “Priorities in Science in Underdeveloped Countries.” Sankhyā: The Indian Journal of Statistics, Series B (1960-2002) 26 (1/2): 45–52.

Nevile, Liddy. 2005. “Adaptability and Accessibility: A New Framework.” In Proceedings of the 17th Australia Conference on Computer-Human Interaction: Citizens Online: Considerations for Today and the Future, 1–10. OZCHI ’05. Narrabundah, Australia, Australia: Computer-Human Interaction Special Interest Group (CHISIG) of Australia. http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1108368.1108413.

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia.

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