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Explaining Research

20 Jan Posted by in Faculty, Research | 4 comments
Explaining Research

As pressure for change in higher education mounts, with increasing probing comments from observers—like trustees—who are not part of the academy, explaining faculty research and the resources allotted to it takes on new importance. I think it’s desirable for faculty to participate in the discussion and not simply react to yet another set of claims that what we’ve been doing for decades must be fundamentally disrupted.

There are two or three parts to the puzzle. First, we need to demonstrate why unfunded research can matter. Striving universities like Mason have understandably placed a lot of emphasis on increasing external funding (which we’ve done with some success). We’ve always tried to make it clear that we also value research gains in disciplines where funding is less standard, but we probably need to become more vigorous about this. We can also explain—and this part is easier—that some unfunded research must be supported because it is preliminary, or striking out in new directions, but might at some point lead to fundable possibilities—while also protecting the right to try something that fails.

Which links to another key point: not all higher ed research should be valued for its contributions to economic development or its potential for commercialization. In some cases this should be a no-brainer. To take one of many examples: Mason faculty conduct research in the area of criminology that has demonstrably contributed to better policing and a reduction in crime. It’s not commercializable, as far as I know, nor does it lend itself to completely precise measurements, but it sure is worthy. Of course, a good bit of it does get funded. Still, we need to make the case, for there is a current temptation to overemphasize an unduly limited set of criteria for what warrants faculty research time.

I don’t mean to suggest that the climate has become so hostile that the claims made so far will be rejected by our external audiences and regulators, but I do believe the cases must be made, against a narrowly utilitarian evaluation.

There is still another task. What about research that will almost certainly never be fundable, at least in terms of the sources of money available in the United States, but which also not only is not commercializable but does not, directly at least, lead to better policies or social procedures? What, in other words, about research in large stretches of the humanities and kindred subjects? (I remind my readers that I’m a historian, so I’m talking about me, too.)

Here, I think most of us would be arguing that our work contributes to understanding or enjoyment or both, in ways that are also socially useful; projects that contribute to more vigorous and accurate teaching can qualify here as well.  I’ve actually been thinking through the several research projects I’ve conducted over time, and how I would justify them to an external audience drawn not just from the ranks of historians. I think I could protect most of them (though not all) in terms of these broader categories of social utility—and therefore that the salary support I’ve had for research has not been wasted.

I do think that we need to be willing to offer such justifications, not for every specific project but for the larger directions of humanistic research that is not routinely subjected to evaluations by funders, commercializers, or policymakers. It’s risky to hide behind evaluations that come only from our own sub disciplines, where one can easily rouse support for projects that might be legitimately unpersuasive to a larger audience. I know there’s risk here, and it’s tempting to try to insist that everything we’ve been doing has been just fine so leave us alone. But I do believe, cautiously and with deep respect for the fundamental contributions of the humanities, that we might experiment with some additional mechanisms, some additional opportunities for explanation that will help us link our work to clear social value. I certainly think, as we work with graduate and undergraduate researchers, that we need to encourage them in the same directions as they pick projects and explain their importance.

Again, the basic point is the need for adequate encompassing protection of the research mission. I think we may need to include some innovation as well. It’s not going to be easy, at a time when conventions are being challenged and when resources are constrained, to develop an appropriate balance between responsibility and independence. If we do things right, with care and imagination, we might actually create a warmer climate for supporting key facets of humanities research than we now enjoy.