I’m going to start with another declaration of interest today. I work in the UK Higher Education (University) sector and I have done for the past seven and a half years. I have also benefited from studying at undergraduate and postgraduate level in UK universities at various stages in my career to date (and who knows, I may yet enrol on and finally finish a Masters course at some point in the future when time permits)
I’m inevitably biased therefore, when it comes to discussions around the purpose of higher education, and in particular, research undertaken by HE institutions. At a time when the economy is still struggling to emerge from the damage inflicted through the world financial collapse, and when public expenditure is subject to closer scrutiny than at any point in the last thirty years, it is perhaps inevitable that questions are asked about Government support for research into apparently niche or minority areas. Even those communication channels that tend to be seen as more moderate and enlightened can fall into the trap of pandering to an agenda that seeks to differentiate between research that is worthy of support and that which is (implicitly at least) classed as being frivolous or an unnecessary luxury
An example is the coverage of “more unusual research” on the BBC website today (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-24363025). The article appears at first sight to be neutral and value-free, but on closer inspection, there is a sneering undertone that suggests that the reporter is unconvinced by the value of the work that forms the basis of the story. This is reinforced by references in the introductory paragraph to work on the human genome project or the discovery of antibiotics as transformational, while other “research passes into the annals of human knowledge largely unnoticed.”
The problem with this binary approach to the classification of research as valuable or not is that it is only possible to make this judgement AFTER the fact. Some of the greatest breakthroughs in research occurred quite by accident (see examples here : http://www.xperimania.net/ww/en/pub/xperimania/news/world_of_materials/accidental_discoveries.htm and here : http://www.geniusstuff.com//blog/list/10-accidental-inventions/). However, in each case, whilst the discovery may have been accidental, it was recognised, developed and exploited because the researcher was in the right frame of mind to seize the opportunity
“Ah!” I hear you say, “but these are medical and engineering breakthroughs; things that we can see or touch or use with measurable, visible effects. How do these compare to studies into lap dancing, shoes or tattoos?” It’s a good question, but it’s not a new one. There is a wealth of research to support the suggestion that research in the arts and social sciences also produces direct economic, knowledge and societal benefits (see for example, the report here : http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/TR816.html)
So let’s take care not to risk ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ when it comes to public funding for research in all academic disciplines. Investment in research is never certain, and even the most well put together research proposals will occasionally fail – but even in failure, what is learned can prove to be hugely valuable!