A conversation at a braai this weekend past has got me thinking about the overarching guidance of research in this country. I guess this might not be a new idea, but it seems to me that we are going about it all wrong, at least in SA.
In South Africa, as in much of the rest of the world, research is driven by grant money. This money usually comes from one of two sources: the government, or charitable organisations. Generally, the government allocates money to a number of funding agencies, such as the National Research Foundation, Medical Research Council etc. These bodies then dole out grants on the basis of (presumably) some policy decisions at government level, in response to applications from labs or research groups at tertiary institutions. Non-government funding works in much the same way, although what gets funded will differ somewhat. Funding from these groups usually has a bent towards two major research areas – public health (this is Africa, after all) and environmental change. There is a third source of funding – industry – that is growing in this country, but remains rather limited in size.
The problem here, is that there is a disconnect between research and application. There is no need to display concrete application in order for your work to be funded. There is nothing attaching the work you do to a real-world outcome. As a result, some academics feel that they have the right to pursue research which may never have a bearing on the real world. I can hear the objections to this statement already, mostly along the lines of ‘researchers need to explore their world without the constraints of corporate demands’, and I agree with that. But vast quantities of research goes unpublished (I have heard a figure of 70%, although I can’t remember where I read it), and even the research that is published is often never cited again. And to me, that seems like a massive waste of resources in a resource-scarce world. It would be of so much more value if the research were tied to an explicit outcome from the very beginning.
This is what the EU are now doing, and I would live to see it happening in here, too. Research grants are awarded to consortiums of SME’s, large corporations and research institutions, rather than individual research groups. The grant is given with a specific product or goal in mind. Usually, the project stemming from that grant will cover the full research spectrum, from basic laboratory work through applied research, product testing and development, all the way to an economic feasibility study. And if that research takes 5 or 10 years, it’s no problem. There is always the option to apply for a new grant for the same project.
In a recent interview with Prof. Ed Rybicki of UCT, he told me that research without application is vanity science. I couldn’t agree more, and I would like to add to that: I think it’s downright harmful to progress.