Research and its societal utility

Submitted by Isto Huvila on Wed, 09/02/2015 - 12:09

I recently received an invitation to participate in a survey on attitudes on the societal relevance and utility of research conducted by a somewhat well-known Swedish consultancy Demoskop. It is obvious that research without relevance whatsoever is total waste of time but the survey is an excellent example of the difficulty and shear impossibility of asking "general" questions about this topic. The survey will undoubtedly will produce useful results for those who have paid for it. Some researchers are very positive about the importance of societal utility of their research and research in general and they would like to see that it would have an influence in future employment contracts and distribution of research funding. Some others, can be nicely categorised as conservative fools that like to sit in their ivory towers pondering irrelevant things. This is at least what I fear.

You might think that this is a weird comment from a social scientist like me who is mainly working with real organisations, companies and things going on in the society. For my own research, the social utility is of course very relevant. The problem is that I don't and I bet not many others would dare to say when actually the research is useful. In my case it can be directly useful, it can be useful in a couple of years (which nicely fits in the usual length of a typical research project) but it might be useful first in 10 or 50 years. In other disciplines, the utility may become apparent only in two or three centuries when others have built on top of their fundamental findings. This is something that has to be accepted. If the utility should be directly measurable, the research does not really take us anywhere else than solving at the best very trivial issues. Funding something like that or calling it research would be highly detrimental.

So, you can't really ask these kinds of questions at least on general level. But, this does not mean that researchers should be allowed or encouraged to conduct irrelevant research. The relevance, potential utility and implications of every research effort should be clearly expressed. The problem, as I see it at the moment is, that the current ideology of trying to find proxies of scientific quality in terms of quantity (of publications, of external financing, of awarded doctoral degrees, of the number of playmates outside academia) is encouraging irrelevant and not so useful research, but which does promise to produce a correct amount of nice but not so interesting publications and engages a huge network of marginally relevant partners in different universities and organisations at home and abroad. So, yes, cooperation and societal utility are important but they are outcomes of good research, not a premise how to determine it a priori.