Research? What Research?

A new government (at last we can exhale) suggests a great opportunity to begin afresh on many public projects. But is it too much to think we can reset ingrained cultural attitudes? Let’s dream big, at least for now. I would love to see a fundamental shift in Australia’s attitude to research. Not to any specific research, just research as a concept.

When most people hear the word ‘research’ they think ‘science’. Some even specifically think ‘medicine’. If you remind them of phrases like ‘market research’ they might possibly think ‘statistics’. This is at the heart of the change I want to see. I don’t deny that science, too, has been starved for support, with horrendous cuts to the CSIRO and many other valuable institutions. However, it’s easy to say “we need to support research better” and have people nod because they think you just said we need to support science.

Is it too vast an ambition to want to move the cultural conversation to where everyone expects there to be research on everything? My current job is supporting people who do research into creativity, and it’s an immense privilege to work on getting more of that out into the world. But very few people grasp that something like ‘creativity’ is something that can be researched. Discussing the topic in the context of education sometimes helps, but it’s so much more than that, and one of the things we need to do is stop trying to justify esoteric areas of study by focusing on how we teach it. We need to grapple with how much most most of our society doesn’t realise that there are people out there producing research in Drama, History, Literature, Philosophy, Culture, Music, Politics, and a thousand other things that don’t necessarily have health, education or numeric applications – and that’s what we want for our world! Research has a PR problem, and academics and universities need to broaden their agenda to address it. I have ranted before about the misconception when funding is discussed (and scoffed at) of treating it like buying a book, rather than employing a specialist. We need to shift the conversation to talk about research as a process of work.

The whole GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) sector could benefit from the same, and that might require an examination of a deep-seated principle of deliberately making the work invisible. Conventionally, curators of exhibitions or collections don’t centre themselves, the idea is for the framing of the work to feel inevitable. There are lots of good ideological reasons why we might want to make the standpoint of the curator apparent these days; there is a major cultural shift going on to allow an audience to assess the perspective and potential biases that went towards producing any cultural work. This could be extended to help the whole enterprise of increasing public support for the field. Pull back the curtain, expose the mechanics, show the work, show that it is work.

Let’s begin now. Stop hesitating to speak about how hard or skilled or specialised the work of research is. Share the process, work through the puzzles in public. The beauty of this is that it’s a really positive thing to do anyway – research is fun and satisfying, and if we talk about it more, lots more people will want it in their lives!

Which of these items produces research? (Trick question – it’s the researcher that does that.)

2 thoughts on “Research? What Research?

  1. One general comment: For whatever reason, Germany doesn’t have this problem. If you’re in mixed company in Germany, and you say you’re a researcher, and someone says “what about” and you say “ancient Akkadian” there is no extra penalty for that. There are still people who are hostile to what they see as “eggheads” there (although arguably fewer), but the localized hostility against people who are perceived to study things we consider obscure in the US is not there. (Although the US is less hostile to cognitive science research than it is to, say, biblical history.) If you ever have the chance to speak to a German colleague this might be something to explore.

    • This gets to the very heart of what I’m talking about, and it would be great to find out what helps countries like that maintain that broader cultural attitude to intellectual work. My hope is that it’s not just ancient tradition, but something more transferrable.

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