Thursday, June 23, 2011

Doing Stuff

Someone -- a scientist -- recently told me to be careful about how and when I use the word "research" because this word has negative connotations for some people, particularly politicians and others who might make negative decisions about funding for certain activities that involve certain people at institutions of higher education in the United States.

Research is a bad word? Research?

Research is a search for knowledge. Through research, we discover things. We solve problems. We invent new things. Research implies that the search for knowledge is somewhat systematic, but only in a broad sense. Research is learning. These are good things.

Research isn't always used as a force for good, of course, and it can be warped, politicized, and done poorly, but that doesn't mean the concept itself is flawed or that there is anything wrong with the word. If that were the case, we should also stop using words like "government", "religion", and "faculty meeting".

What is a better alternative to the phrase "I do research"? I am not making this up, but in this same conversation, I was told that some people apparently prefer more friendly statements, like "I do stuff".

Speaking from my elitist ivory tower liberal professorial outpost, "I do stuff" just sounds stupid to me as a job description. Also, it's a bit vague, covering everything from cleaning out your closets (something I do every 7 years, whether they need it or not) to determining the structure of material using a synchrontron.

I suppose I should not be surprised about this, given that we are in the era of "This was not intended as a factual statement", "fair and balanced", and deliberate misunderstanding of fundamental scientific phenomena.

Nevertheless, as a researcher (or stuff-doer, if you prefer), I don't think the useful word "research" should be considered a scary, elitist, or liberal word. It's a slippery slope from vilifying a word to undermining the concept, to the ultimate benefit of no one.

It seems to me that some of the same people who don't like the word "research" also get upset at the thought that the US might be out-competed by others in technological advances. Technological advances come mostly from research (except the ones kindly provided by friendly pink unicorns).

Research is essential to the health, happiness, and security of us all, so we need to keep doing it, and/or stuff, and calling it what it is (and funding it).

22 comments:

mOOm said...

What about "I do science"? I do stuff is just meaningless.

dreadsci said...

Yeah, I'm really not okay with giving up the work "research". I'm with you---let's target the misunderstanding rather than ceding that rather important word.

I like "keeping our country at the forefront of technological innovation". But that might be assuming the anti-research crowd is pro-business-speak.

Anonymous said...

"Research" is a positive word. I think that impression cuts across party lines. The scientist who told you it could be taken negatively is probably just crazy...

John V said...

I don't know the context, but I can imagine "research" might be considered suspect to the extent it prevents university faculty from spending much of their time teaching undergraduates, and particularly undergraduates from the state that owns the ground on which the university operates.

Especially if the teaching is limited to a few classes that have been taught many times before, with just a few hours of lectures a week, and TAs doing the labs and study sessions and grading the homework, and the research is of little direct economic benefit to that state.

Science Professor Mum said...

"If that were the case, we should also stop using words like "government", "religion", and "faculty meeting"."

How true - particularly the last one.

I have sometimes encountered people who think that "research" is just sitting around messing about with things that don't mean anything to mere mortals. The US TV series"The Big Bang Theory" that shows over here probably doesn't help with this, although I do find it funny (possibly because I can identify colleagues in some of the characters!). Clearly this is a problem for the image of research - but I don't think "doing stuff" improves things.

If you come up with a good description, especially one for a 4 year old who keeps asking what Mummy does at work, I'd be very grateful!!!!

Anonymous said...

Makes me wonder about your take on the new AARP commercials that take shots at various government-funded research endeavors that are receiving support at a time when Congress wants to cut Medicaid. Neat little commercial, but unfortunately doing a good job polarizing an issue to which the vast majority of Americans have no clue about the aims of those research funding efforts.

DrDoyenne said...

In my job (government scientist), I run into this issue all the time.

Most often the negative perception of "research" arises from the mistaken impression that we researchers focus on esoteric questions and publish incomprehensible (to the public) papers in inaccessible technical journals and produce nothing of real value to the average person.

In other words, a waste of public funds that yields nothing except a paper in a journal only read by a few other eggheads.

In my field, there is always a push (from politicians, government officials, the public) to "do something" to fix an environmental problem, rather than to study it first and develop a solid remediation plan based on facts.

Some people will squawk about wasting money "studying a problem to death" when we should be taking action (and, by the way, give them the $$$ and they'll tell you what that action needs to be; never mind that it probably won't work--they'll be long gone by the time the funding agency realizes).

Using the term "research" in some circles will guarantee you won't get funded. We (scientists) are sometimes forced to call what we do "monitoring" to get the needed funds to better understand the problem, to gather the necessary data to develop models, restoration plans, or whatever the situation calls for.

I'm not sure how to combat the negative connotation associated with the word "research". In my experience, it's embedded in an overall anti-science, anti-ivory tower, anti-intellectual culture.

Perhaps doing a better job of educating the public about what scientists do and why research is important is one way to reverse this trend.

Female Science Professor said...

In fact, it was a government scientist who warned me about using the word "research", and I got the impression that the problem is that "research" does not imply doing anything useful (unlike "doing stuff").

Doctor Pion said...

Consider the lowly lithium-ion battery, whose development resulted from that most evil of all evildoers, UNIVERSITY research!

And it is not a result of misunderstanding, it is a result of a disinformation campaign that must be countered by people who know the truth about the contributions of scientific research to our economy, health, and general well being.

Arts and Sciences Student said...

Just for kicks, it would be funny to see the word "research" replaced with "stuff" on a professor's profile page and CV. It would be even more funny if it meant that the professor's title changed to "Stuff Professor."

Anonymous said...

FSP: I'm curious about what it is that you clean out every 7 years -- "whether they need it or not"...
Ears?
Toilets?
Bank accounts?
Pencil sharpeners?
Fume hoods?

Anonymous said...

"Yeah, I'm doing...stuff." That sounds like something a sullen teenager would say.

I think that many/most people in non-research jobs don't really know what it means to be a researcher. Therefore I usually go with "I work on [things people have heard of that are close enough to what I do]."

Female Science Professor said...

I should have made it clear that the context wasn't just about using the word "research" in conversation, but about using it in professional contexts, like on a department webpage.

Anonymous said...

I must say I wouldn't be opposed to removing the phrase 'faculty meeting' from our vocabulary. That never means anything good.

Anonymous said...

That's ok, the words "development" as in of resources, and "profit" are evil now too.

Marisa said...

I am also curious as to what you clean every 7 years...

Post-doc said...

What about "I do research stuff." That way people know what kind of useless stuff you do. ;-)

Federal Scientist said...

Yeah. A Lot of federal agencies have very little motive to do research given that the people with control of the cash have had the prevailing view-point that "research" is the useless variety of federal science. They prefer, surveying, monitoring, analyzing. These are tasks designed to bring us greater depth of knowledge about a specific problem that can be used to solve (and/or) litigate said problem (think EPA science) or to make it easier to exploit a resource (think DOE science). This is not the complete antithesis of the kind of science where we try to learn something generalizable to natural phenomena, but as a fed, I've no reason to stress the hypothesis testing part of my scientific endeavors if its going to inhibit my ability to secure "research" dollars and actually learn something as a result. That said, there are plenty of federal agencies who like reasearch (as an engineering discipline- think DOD science).

Materialist said...

I think that in politics-land the words investigate and research are interpreted similarly, though research comes across as less focused. Also, politicians at the national level have been exposed to opposition research, which does not carry a warm & fuzzy association.

JL said...

What does mum do?

"Well, mum does lots of studying and reading of what other intelligent people worldwide have written. Then mum applies what she learned to solve problems or create new information like maps of stuff, or maybe make forecasts of how things will be in the future. Sometimes mom tries to be even more clever than the other people she reads from. This is often a group activity."

Generally, I think "Mum keeps herself educated about everything that everyone has ever thought about in this specific field" is an important part of many researchers' job, and one thing laymen can understand and appreciate. Even if that inevitably means you have to answer "I don't know about that, that's not in my field of research" to the next question.

Ham Nox said...

I blame Portal, or at least the sort of thinking that leads to people creating games equating 'research' with ruthless psychological torture.

But look at me still talking when there's Science to do :)

BrownieCentral said...

My problem with "research" is that it is so broad, and can mean so many different things, which makes it a less approachable topic. I'm all for saying I do research, but I tend to say something like "I study cows" and then for people who want to know more, I can explain how I really study certain scientific questions and sometimes some aspect of cows in the process ...