Is academia even supposed to be useful?

If you’re wondering why I keep harping on basic research, it’s because I want to write an essay on the topic and I’m using this venue to hash out my ideas. So here we go again! Here’s David Bruggeman commenting on my exhortation for policy analysts to just say that scientists should care more about need-driven research:

Yes, the government supports research that addresses specific national needs. But who gets tenure for conducting research that addresses specific national needs? There’s not necessarily a correlation between cutting-edge and targeted to national needs.

There are a few issues mixed in here. First, it’s very easy to falsely homogenize all academic research. It’s undoubtedly true that the string theorists and particle physicists aren’t addressing a specific national need (outside of maintaining the U.S. lead in basic science). Theoretical physics, however, does not represent all of academia. Engineering schools routinely focus on practical problems. Even in physics many study “useful” topics like fuel cells and alternative energy. On top of that, programs like Stanford’s Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resource are becoming increasingly common.

It’s also true that no one gets tenure for addressing a national need. But I’ll go against the zeitgeist here and say that’s a good thing! Researchers should be evaluated on their research quality, teaching, outreach, administrative tasks, etc. And while I would love to see a much bigger focus on teaching and outreach, it’s a stretch to think that your typical tenure committee is qualified to evaluate how well a given research portfolio addresses national needs. As David knows as well as anyone, science is only one component.

To the extent we believe research helps solve problems, academics can best serve their role by doing good research. Sometimes doing doing good research entails direct engagement with a real-world problem. The global cook-oves initiative comes to mind here. But this type of situation is rare. Even on what appears to be a pressing issue like coral reef management, research is often fairly removed from immediate use. I’d like to think that Stanford’s Environmental Fluid Mechanics Lab will lead to better decisions, but the latest supercomputer simulations don’t offer much. And thus it doesn’t make much sense to include extra-scientific criteria in the evaluation.

The underlying problem here is that David is trying to make academia, and research more generally, something that it inherently is not. Academia, simply put, is not supposed to be directly useful. Academia does in fact contain many academics. Almost by definition, academics aren’t motivated by pressing, relevant problems. If they were, they wouldn’t be academics! By your 3rd year in grad school, you pretty much figure out that if you want to do work that connects to the real world, you leave academia. Now I may be biased because I was in a physics department, but I don’t think these sentiments are way off the mark. I suspect this dynamic is why the government does research in national labs as well as universities. It’s also why we have university-industry partnerships, and directly fund private companies to do work.

There’s nothing wrong with being an academic of course. The pursuit of knowledge is a worthy activity, and a big part of me would be happy doing that for the rest of my life.* But you’re only going to get so far asking academics to do something they’re not always well-suited to do.

*On this topic, here’s a plug for this wonderfully eloquent post over at Skullcrusher Mountain.


  1. I’m trying to say that government-funded research and academic reward systems are based on different goals and outcomes. Issues of utility (especially utility without reference to an object) don’t have to affect that distinction.

    FWIW, I reject the notion that academia is not useful. I’m not sure it isn’t useful to addressing national needs. It just doesn’t seem to reward paying attention to those needs. Branscomb felt obligated, when articulating Jeffersonian science, to make it clear that the researcher didn’t need to know or even recognize, the linkage to national needs. I think he went too far here, because insisting on this separation from application seemed both artificial and insulting.

    This fallacy of research conducted without cognizance of potential or application is one of this things (like the linear model) that harkens to an idealized age and doesn’t reflect current practice or understanding of the world. No-strings-attached grants like MacArthur’s ‘genius’ are very rare, so anyone applying for funding has to have some conception of what their research might mean. Issues of use are relative – useful to whom?

  2. “Academia, simply put, is not SUPPOSED to be directly useful” (my capitalization)
    I would contest that and, like David Bruggeman, would reject the notion that academia is not ACTUALLY useful.
    Naturally, I don’t want to look like I’m just shamelessly plugging my own blog (which I am anyway!), but did you see my article on your last post? It would appear to serve just as well as a comment on the issues that are still of concern to you here.

  3. Well, I’m coming in in the middle of the conversation, but here are my two cents: first, the government funds basic, curiosity-driven research at universities with a couple of expectations. One is that participation in that research will help train new scientists. Another is that some of the basic research – but it’s often hard to know which – will lead to innovations and discoveries that help solve national problems.

    At the level of federal policymaking, the way resources are allocated to research affects how much effort researchers devote to basic research related to various national problems. For example, you double the NIH budget, you get more biomedical researchers (and biomedical research) as a result, which leads to more, and more rapid, advances in biomedical science. If you funded a whole lot more basic research related to energy, let’s say, researchers (especially students contemplating their careers) would follow the money (which sounds flip but I don’t mean it that way) and more of this research would get done.

    The connection between the two is that incentives for tenure = getting federal money in many cases.

  4. Hi All. Sorry for the very slow response.
    David–I see what you’re saying. I think it would help a lot if we could get more specific here. How can we reward scientists for paying attention to needs? And I also don’t think all of academia is useless. As I described above, there are definitely parts of the academy that do try to address needs. I just think that trying to really push utility will often run against the cultural bias towards pure research. And so the Branscombs of the world really need to just come out and say that, and also get very specific as to how reward systems can be reconfigured.

    Peter–Thanks for your comment. I did mean to say something on your blog. You’re of course welcome to advertise here, but my widely unread blog is probably not going to increase your site traffic too much!

    Lt.–Good point about getting money as a huge factor in getting tenure. But since upper level policymakers set funding decisions, maybe you can change academia without really trying to change academic culture.

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