We’re going about research the wrong way

Focusing on Solutions: Research without an application creates problems, not solutions.

Focusing on Solutions: Research without an application creates problems, not solutions.

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 But vast quantities of research goes unpublished (I have heard a figure of 70%, although I can’t remember where I read it), and even the research that is published is often never cited again.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.

One thought on “We’re going about research the wrong way

  1. I agree 100% with this post. To me it is much more important that my research has valid input into fisheries management than if I get a paper in a journal out of it. This is perhaps not the right way to pursue a career in academia but something my supervisor has allowed me to do during my PhD.

    Real world research takes us on a different path that isn’t measured in any formal way in academia (UCT has the Social Responsiveness Unit, but they recognise that there is limited scope to support such things within current academic situation – http://www.uct.ac.za/about/intro/socialresponse/) . All the time I spend communicating my research and developing research questions with ‘stakeholders’ is not efficient, it takes so much longer and working across disciplines means I need to spend much more time learning not just one field but two or three and working with many more people than if I was working on a direct, blue-r sky project.

    I do worry that while my work currently builds a great CV and skills set for a job outside of academia, the space I have for post-docs or further, should I wish, in my department is very limited.

    Fortunately, as you mention, there is a move to new approaches to funding and transdisciplinary research that embraces this sort of research and hopefully with my skills I’ll be able to benefit from this in the future.

    Emily – PhD student in Biological Sciences (UCT) focusing on how management is moving towards implementing an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries in South Africa’s sardine fishery.

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