Useless research not so useless?

Questions are increasingly asked about what exactly some research is for. Why do universities and various other institutions allocate so much time and effort (not to mention money) on research that doesn’t seem useful or worthwhile?

Much of the problem seems to arise from the fact that many research units are highly specialised and speak a metaphorically different language from each other. As such mutual understanding can be limited.  For example, those in the law domain have very different usage of English than do creative writers. Those in the sciences have several sets of terminology that only they can understand.

Arguably, however, the language differences are just a screen. Researchers from different units do not always appreciate the domain essence of what their colleagues in other departments value. A typical law professor may not see the beauty in a Jane Austin turn of phrase. A climate control researcher may not appreciate the finer points of buzz marketing. As the risk of generalising, a hard-core environmentalist might have considerable difficulty appreciating the nuances of a marketing campaign for a seemingly trivial item like a cuddly toy.

The interpretation of trivial is in the eye of the beholder. A piece of seemingly useless research that I read about today concerns hair length in Florida theme parks. At first glance one wonders why the researchers decided that it was important to know the hair length of 24,300 adults attending a theme park. The expression “who cares” comes to mind. What difference can it make if your hair is cropped short or several feet long or somewhere in-between.

It’s not up there with research into cancer research but I’m informed it’s important. There are implications for the very lucrative fashion world. Milliners, in particular, keep a beady eye on hair lengths. The extent of tresses is a top priority for cosmetics manufacturers too. For most of us a bottle of shampoo is merely a bottle of shampoo. But ask shampoo manufacturers and the commentary is very different indeed.

The essence is that research into hair length is seemngly irrelevant to me but is of grave importance to others.

So called “useless” research that requires the investment of resources may not be all the useless when considered through a different set of eyes. The problem is that it can be difficult to view a particular research domain from the perspectives of others whose domain of expertise is far removed from one’s own.

Hair and lots of it....

... or none at all

... or none at all

A call for open-mindedness is required.


Posted on July 28, 2009, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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