A mobile researcher’s manifesto: investigate things that matter

The Ig Nobel prizes are hilarious, I know, but eventually, the joke is on us, researchers. Seriously, is there no better use for our time, creative energies and financial resources than finding out if bacon can cure nosebleeds or if dogs align on purpose on the north-south axis of the Earth’s magnetic field to pee and poop? Is this what should keep us awake at night? Are these really the most pressing issues in need of immediate attention? While I recognise the arrogance of claiming that some things are more worthy of attention than others, I stand by my words: some things do matter more. Among those, issues related to social justice, at-risk or vulnerable groups, invisible/ less visible groups, social illnesses caused by living in today’s society, the long-term implications of the refugee crisis in Europe and worldwide; things that matter are investigating what brings us closer and addressing the roots of divisions, pro-social and cooperative mechanisms, positive psychology; reflective, ethical, sensible and sensitive engagement with the research field in a broad manner – with academia as a community, with research institutes, with the topic, the participants and their wider community/context, with collaborators, with ourselves as researchers.

I think that social sciences require more focus on the positive, on good aspects of human nature, on what makes us able to work together, to give, cooperate, accept others. Too much energy and attention to the negative, such as causes of deviant or criminal behaviour has been spent, and not so much on what makes us intervene and defend someone in need. The anchoring effect makes us think the world is a dangerous place, full of ill-intended people. From anthropologists1  to the Dalai Lama, there seems to be an agreement that a shift in perspective is needed. 

In the old dispute between basic and applied research, the common place goes that we need basic research, guided solely by the researcher’s imagination, creative freedom and curiosity, whereas applied research will always be conditioned and directed from the outside. In truth, the reality offered in the landscape shaped by the neoliberal attack on academia is one in which researchers themselves have little control over what they investigate, from how funding is allotted in different directions, through specific requirements of the grant proposals, to finally the outcomes (i.e. “deliverables”) researchers are supposed to produce; instead, they are dragged in “publish or perish” rat-races towards amassing “success indicators” in competitions for funds, resulting in loss of creative vision, alienation, disengagement, a generalised bleak mood and lack of enthusiasm over academic work)2.

Furthermore, in the traditional academic environment, it is extremely difficult to venture into unfamiliar territories and move swiftly between research interests, with many barriers such as amount of time needed to familiarise oneself with a new topic (time you must take out of your free time), the requirement of being a match in terms of your publication record to the grants you apply for (nobody will give you money to research something you have no expertise on), the pressure not to step away too much from orthodox ideas when publishing, and all sorts of other “soft” pressures, such as prestige and established position in one topic, or pressures from the bureaucrats of science (funding boards and committees). Former NIH Director and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, cited by HuffPost, states:

“The system now favors those who can guarantee results rather than those with potentially path-breaking ideas that, by definition, cannot promise success. Young investigators are discouraged from departing too far from their postdoctoral work, when they should instead be posing new questions and inventing new approaches. Seasoned investigators are inclined to stick to their tried-and-true formulas for success rather than explore new fields.”

Over time, inertia kills motivation and drive, although we like to justify the importance of what we do regardless. No one likes to feel insignificant, so we usually find justifications for continuing doing what we’re doing, no matter how distant and abstract. However, research has shown that immediate over some abstract distant meaning matters greatly for staying engaged with our work.

However, more than aligning with somebody else’s ideas of what constitutes matters worthy of investigation, it is more important for each of us to question the relevance of what we’re doing and have the guts to make the required changes, although I am aware that always doing meaningful work and making changes towards doing things that matter is not easy, at least not in formal academic settings. That’s another reason why we need alternatives. Like the Institute for Venture Science. Like self-organised networks of researchers. So instead of sniffing under dogs tails, we can look around, notice what happens, pay attention, get curious about people’s lives and how we might contribute towards making them better [Caveat: all the while, checking our privileges and colonial attitudes]. We can question and be mindful about the importance of the work we do, and strive to be the research we want to see in the world.

Notes:

1Fox, K. (2004). Watching the English. The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. London: Hodder & Stoughton
2On a side note, the production-efficiency logic, the pressure to always produce in the “publish or perish” imperative results in lower quality publications which researchers must produce fast, instead of taking time to reflect and develop a real personal research agenda (in addition to sucking away one’s life force).