Is academia even supposed to be useful?
If you’re wondering why I keep harping on basic research, it’s because I want to write an essay on the topic and I’m using this venue to hash out my ideas. So here we go again! Here’s David Bruggeman commenting on my exhortation for policy analysts to just say that scientists should care more about need-driven research:
Yes, the government supports research that addresses specific national needs. But who gets tenure for conducting research that addresses specific national needs? There’s not necessarily a correlation between cutting-edge and targeted to national needs.
There are a few issues mixed in here. First, it’s very easy to falsely homogenize all academic research. It’s undoubtedly true that the string theorists and particle physicists aren’t addressing a specific national need (outside of maintaining the U.S. lead in basic science). Theoretical physics, however, does not represent all of academia. Engineering schools routinely focus on practical problems. Even in physics many study “useful” topics like fuel cells and alternative energy. On top of that, programs like Stanford’s Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resource are becoming increasingly common.
It’s also true that no one gets tenure for addressing a national need. But I’ll go against the zeitgeist here and say that’s a good thing! Researchers should be evaluated on their research quality, teaching, outreach, administrative tasks, etc. And while I would love to see a much bigger focus on teaching and outreach, it’s a stretch to think that your typical tenure committee is qualified to evaluate how well a given research portfolio addresses national needs. As David knows as well as anyone, science is only one component.
To the extent we believe research helps solve problems, academics can best serve their role by doing good research. Sometimes doing doing good research entails direct engagement with a real-world problem. The global cook-oves initiative comes to mind here. But this type of situation is rare. Even on what appears to be a pressing issue like coral reef management, research is often fairly removed from immediate use. I’d like to think that Stanford’s Environmental Fluid Mechanics Lab will lead to better decisions, but the latest supercomputer simulations don’t offer much. And thus it doesn’t make much sense to include extra-scientific criteria in the evaluation.
The underlying problem here is that David is trying to make academia, and research more generally, something that it inherently is not. Academia, simply put, is not supposed to be directly useful. Academia does in fact contain many academics. Almost by definition, academics aren’t motivated by pressing, relevant problems. If they were, they wouldn’t be academics! By your 3rd year in grad school, you pretty much figure out that if you want to do work that connects to the real world, you leave academia. Now I may be biased because I was in a physics department, but I don’t think these sentiments are way off the mark. I suspect this dynamic is why the government does research in national labs as well as universities. It’s also why we have university-industry partnerships, and directly fund private companies to do work.
There’s nothing wrong with being an academic of course. The pursuit of knowledge is a worthy activity, and a big part of me would be happy doing that for the rest of my life.* But you’re only going to get so far asking academics to do something they’re not always well-suited to do.