What’s the point of academic research?

A university is supposed to be involved in research and teaching, and MOOCs potentially cut into the teaching side of the business. Even if they aren’t as good, they may still take a big chunk of market share. One can buy hand-sewn shirts, but mass-produced shirts are much more common.

So that leaves the research side of the university. What’s the point? Is it to be ‘critic and conscience of society’, which is the New Zealand job description for an academic? Is it to advance knowledge and understanding?

What got me thinking about the topic was this profile of Noam Chomsky by Glen Greenwald. Greenwald, a journalist, has been a relentless critic of the security state that the US has put in place over the last two presidencies. Chomsky, an academic, has been a critic of American hegemony for decades. It is likely that academic tenure has helped Chomsky speak his mind. That is, the economic security of his job allowed him to have ‘a room of one’s own’ (Virginia Woolf) and be a critic of society.

University research, then, might be about providing an environment in which individuals and teams can pursue research, whether that research is criticising society or supporting it. The university buffers researchers from that same society — providing them time for the research to come to fruition, shielding them from reactions when their opinions or findings are unpopular. The uneasy bargain is that society pledges resources to the university — even when it bites the hand that feeds it — because of a belief that ultimately it will be for the social good.

But is it? Or, more precisely, is it at the margin?

And that question takes me to findings like those discussed here:

Consider this tally from Science two decades ago: Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further. In a 2009 article in Online Information Review, Péter Jacsó found that 40.6 percent of the articles published in the top science and social-science journals (the figures do not include the humanities) were cited in the period 2002 to 2006.

So it seems that much university research isn’t even of value to researchers themselves.

There is also discussion of the ‘need’ for academics to contribute more, be more engaged with society, adopt more of a public intellectual stance. Those discussions suggest that society — government, business, the chatterati — might feel that academics aren’t pulling their weight.

Where I’m getting to is this: if MOOCs call into question the near-monopoly of universities for delivering advanced education, then universities will have to lean more heavily on the research function to justify their existence. But, the research side seems anemic, at least at the margin. The additional contribution of the extra dollar of spend seems to deliver little in the way of engagement or criticism. Oddly, the crisis in teaching raises the title question: what’s the point of research?

This post originally appeared on Sciblogs and Groping Towards Bethlehem