Opinion- 03 April 2008
Uwe Proske* asks:
How Important are Practical Outcomes in Research?
Some years ago, on behalf of the Australian Physiological and Pharmacological Society, I interviewed my friend and teacher, Archie McIntyre (1913-2002) and asked him about his life and work. One question that came up was his views about pure versus applied research. Here is what he said:
In the early days, whether something had a useful, practical outcome was a consideration, but not a major one. If research is not driven by the pressures of a useful outcome, the work often seems to be more objective. And who is to say what knowledge is going to be useful, and what isn’t? Research should also be part of someone’s intellectual training, to try to find out something new, if they can. Here the intellectual achievement should be rewarded, not the practical outcome.1
Remarkably, these views are a long way from present-day realities. Another anecdote I can contribute from my own experience during my days as a young budding physiologist is that it seemed to me departments engaged in applied and clinical research generated outputs that were not as strong as departments concerned with basic science. At the time I concluded that applicability of research findings and clinical outcomes were influences that distracted enquiring minds driven by the motivation most closely linked to creativity, that of curiosity. Such a conclusion prompts the question, are the basic driving forces for creativity any different today? To me that seems unlikely. Yet the intellectual climate is quite different. How has that come about?
An important factor is likely to be the rapid rise to prominence of the reductionist biologies, molecular biology, genomics and proteomics. These disciplines have frequently been able to come up with specific answers to questions that point directly to practical outcomes or clinical relevance. Then we have seen the rise of the whole stem cell industry. All of the new developments, important as they are, have tended to focus the researcher’s eye firmly on the opportunities provided by commercial exploitation. Such a trend appears to have brought with it a rise in the incidence of scientific fraud
There is another influence that, in my view, has altered the research climate in Australian universities. In the past, federal funding has allowed universities to provide significant support for research at the level of individual departments. These funds were intended to be spent to encourage broadly-based research in many areas, in both the basic and applied sciences. That situation changed with introduction of the Dawkins era in the late 1980’s. Overnight the number of Australian universities increased several-fold, but not the federal funds to support them. Application of the vegemite principle led to significant funding shortfalls in the established universities. They responded to the crisis in several ways, including through a greater encouragement of applied outcomes and commercial exploitation of research. We saw the rise of university-owned commercial companies which acted as an interface between university research and industry. Needless to say, this was accompanied by the introduction of a new university bureaucracy to administer the changes as well as to impose a corporate structure on university administration. There was a new term on everyone’s lips, “intellectual property”. At the same time the federal government began to exert its own pressure through government-based funding agencies encouraging applied outcomes and practical relevance
Some of the casualties in this process of change were the decline of research activities in areas not thought to have commercial potential. An example in my own field is the gradual disappearance of comparative physiology. True, there has been a recent upsurge of interest in insect vision although, in some respects, this may be a special case. Research aimed at obtaining an understanding of mechanism, rather than practical outcomes has been discouraged. We don’t want to understand it, just exploit it. Some of these attitudes can be seen reflected in the previous Research Quality Framework rating process of research. Ultimately everything is directed at money and profit.
Coming back to the starting point of this piece, if the prime motivation that drives us in our quest to understand the world around us is curiosity, then we should encourage it. It may mean that pay-offs from research for the community at large may take longer to be realized. But they promise to be substantial. Add to that the far-reaching benefits from the climate of intellectual rigor and scholarship such changes would bring. In the end it is these influences which will help to define our culture, not the search for profit. In the past, the creative processes underlying art and science were seen to be closely linked. In recent years the two have begun to diverge. Let’s bring them closer together again.
1. Proske U. (2003). Obituary: Archie McIntyre (1913-2002) Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology 30: 303-306.
* Professor Uwe Proske was appointed to a Personal Chair in Physiology at Monash University in 1994. For most of his career his research has focussed on the sense organs in mammalian muscle, the muscle spindle and tendon organ. In recent years he has concentrated on research in a number of areas of Sports and Exercise.
I overlapped with Uwe Proske at Monash, being Reader in
Botany from 1970-1990, and share many of his views. I installed and ran the
Plant Cell Biology Laboratory, and saw a great deal of "pure" and "applied"
research go through the Unit. I don't think it matters whether a research
project has an immediate application unless that is the reason it is being
undertaken in the first place. Mission-oriented research of course needs to
achieve its mission, at least some times. But when it comes to studying, as
I did, phenomena of a more generic nature, I saw no reason not to study
cereal crops as our model systems. I could just have easily, and with less
competition, studied the ferns of Sherbrooke Forest, but we studied wheat,
oats, barley and occasionally checked observations in other grasses. This
had a two-way benefit: although an ARGC grant paid for the set up of the
costly equipment in 1969, development of the lab's functions and support for
consumables and staff came from Applied Granting Bodies (e.g. Wheat
Research Council). Of the 40 papers we published on cereals in the period
1970- 1987, it is unlikely that any of them made a major contribution to any
aspect of the profitability of Australian Wheat Farming, which is in fact
driven almost entirely by considerations of baking quality, marketing, and
political issues. But we did manage to uncover a number of major features
about how grasses work in general, which should one need to understand
various aspects in more detail, will provide such future investigators with
useful background. That it was a major contribution to the science of the
time was given some acknowledgement when I was awarded a D.Sc for that work.
Over those years, we had over 600 users from local, national and
international sources who came to work and learn at the Unit, because our
methods of study of plant structure were among the best in the world. This
created a place where flow of ideas and methods rapidly went from those who
were doing the inventing into visitors from more applied enterprises, and
occasionally came back again as some particularly difficult specimen was
finally studied successfully.
What I do not like is the evident rise of killing off research that has no short term prospect( CSIRO's major disease), and the provision of soft money, sometimes even venture capital, to fund major research programs that have Graduate Students dependent on their stipends on such funding. There is pressure to "get a result" in those situations that even exceeds the already heavy pressure to get a result for more normal sources of funding. It is my contention that if work is focused entirely on short-term outcomes, one is forced into applying what you already know. It is very difficult to invent new approaches in those circumstances, and hence over time, the unit risks running out of new, incompletely explored approaches.
Teri O'Brien, Ph.D, D.Sc.