Why are we doing research?
While I was sitting and writing the motivation part for a new research project I have recently been invited to contribute to, the simple question: “Why are we doing it at all?” has crossed my mind. Not this research paper in particular, but why are we doing research in general? All of us, my dear friends and colleagues in the academic sector. Have you asked yourself this question? It was like a flash, a mind exploding thought, which really motivated me to write this blog, instead of writing that research paper this afternoon.
I am fairly new to the academic life, therefore you can judge that my viewpoint is biased and based on my limited experience of working in academic industry, and you might be right here. I even hope that you are right, and I just got a wrong ‘first’ impression. I had recently gone through 7 job interviews for academic positions, and want to tell that all interview questions were fairly similar, i.e. past research, current research, future research, networking, skills, teaching experience, admin experience etc. etc. Focusing on the ‘technical’ details that already are well-described in my CV, the main question “why are you doing it at all?” has been asked just once (therefore I accepted that offer). I appreciate that this question seems to be too general: it will not give a robust indicator of research or teaching skills, and from the recruitment perspective can be completely useless. But to me, it is a core question that you have to ask yourself before turning yourself into an academic.
From my impression, the vast majority of academics now are simply fighting for the research niche. They are continuously searching for the gaps in literature to make a contribution to the knowledge justifying that this problem is worth investigation. This sector simply forces to publish more – you can’t get a job without publications, you can’t get promotions without them, roughly, you could not be successful in this business. Yes, this is a business, fair enough, but what about science? What about impact? Yes “impact” is a popular word nowadays too, discussed widely, and many measures of impact have been invented already. But again… why? Just to get research funding for the school, and to get more citations etc., and consequently to get promotions. Therefore these driving forces caused by increased competition in the academic world generate a tremendous amount of research output, where the majority of papers are extremely limited in scope, and regardless the number of citations, does not make a difference to our society.
Let’s take the Brexit situation as an example, again. How many experts expressed their opinion regarding negative consequences of the “vote out” decision? I don’t know the exact numbers, but even from my observations, there were plenty of them. So all our knowledge, science and advances in finance and economics in particular, does not help to prevent this situation! Where is this beloved impact? Did we all, as a pool of academics, knowledge-creators, do everything that was in our power to explain to society the real situation, and thus prevent extreme ‘right wing’ thoughts to manipulate the public opinion so easily? Whether we could have done more to prevent this burst in violence, racism, extremism and economic stagnation? I think we all failed it!
In my opinion, this situation highlighted the deep philosophical crisis in academia in general. Striving for our own selfish goals academia repeated mistakes done by other sectors, and failed to achieve the main goal: To create a better and more peaceful world to live in. But I want to end on a positive note; we lost this battle, but still might win the war! Let’s just all distract from our daily routines and simply take a moment to think “Why are we doing research?”