Wednesday, 3 September 2014

There is only one type of modern academic research


All science, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities have collapsed into a single academic research subject: that subject is getting funding.

Short-termist and low status research is about getting this particular grant; the difference between the 'also rans' and 'successful' academics is that high status researchers are confident and competent enough to look-ahead at optimizing future grants.

Funding determines what scientists do (i.e. whatever gets funded), how they do it (ditto), and how they report it (i.e. whatever is best for getting more and larger future grants).

And in this fund-seeking process; vocation, interest, usefulness, beauty, truth and honesty have zero part to play.


  1. Bruce,

    Fascinating thoughts. And as a scientist nearing the end of my modest career, I must admit that the grant-chasing business, the publications business, and the role of hyper-specialization are all increasingly problematic.

    There is another side of science, namely the private and for-profit side. It, too, has its inefficiencies, sometimes scandalous ones, but there is real Darwinian pressure that rules the search to find new oil deposits, discover new pharmaceuticals, or develop better scientific instruments. Somehow progress is still being made, and discoveries are still being made. Truth may be elusive, but small truths are still being found.


  2. I have thought about the for-profit side of science some more. Inefficiencies and scandals (I am thinking of the wholesale layoffs at successful laboratories for short-term profits) arise in large part because the purpose of, say, a pharmaceutical company is to return equity to its shareholders, either through profits or by being acquired by another company. This goal is not the same as the discovery of a new and valuable cure for a disease for its own sake, but the overlap is sufficient, particularly in the minds of some of the researchers, that good work is still done. Of particular note are foundations whose goal is to cure a specific disease, perhaps one that afflicts the family of the original foundation donor. These foundations often fund private sector activities for the public good.

  3. Bruce, Yes, Leo