A question universities need to answer: why do we research?

Universities are centres of research… but what kind of research? flickr/pcgn

Fundamentally, there are two big motives for research.

On the on hand there is intellectual ambition: the desire to know and understand the word, to appreciate the best that has been said and thought on the topics that grip our imaginations.

In one of C.P. Snow’s Cambridge novels there’s an elderly character who looks back on his early days working under the chemist and physicist, Ernest Rutherford. “We used to run to our laboratories” he says. They were running because of the immense excitement of the discoveries that were unfolding.

I used to look with an almost physical longing at books in the philosophy section of the library – desperate to get to grips with the glory of the ideas they contained.

Sometimes we call this “blue sky” or “fundamental” research. But, in a crucial way, what is at stake is the love and devotion brought to certain questions by (at present) a relatively small number of people.

Many more people would like to be involved in such work than we are, as a society, willing to pay for. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me that they would like to have a job in which they spent their time studying manuscripts or on archaeological digs or mapping the heavens or speculating on the ultimate nature of good and evil.

While, in fact, they work as public servants, lawyers, estate agents, school teachers, logistics managers, sales representatives and so on.

It may sound a bit crude to put it this way, but we should look at the issue for what it is: there is not enough demand for such research. That is, there are not enough sources of financial input to support these kinds of desired roles.

This raises the first great question that any serious debate about research must address: if you don’t engage ambitiously with markets or public opinion, how will you actually pay for the research you want to undertake?

Understandably we like to suppose that “government” in some form or another will meet the cost. But this in only to put the question one step further back. What kind of politics would we need to have for governments actually to direct resources in this way?

Clearly, relatively affluent countries spend large sums of money on all kinds of things. Why not on the love of knowledge for its own sake?

This is a tantalising question. It’s tempting to answer it in moral terms. One wants to explain why it is lovely and good and in the long-term national interest to support open-ended intellectual ambition.

Should we only research what the market demands? flickr/yanec

But the question is not: would that be good and lovely? The question is: what would have to be the case for such a line of argument to be compelling to government?

There are many potential goods in the world that never come to fruition. And it is fair to say that we are, at present, very far from having a political or national culture in which such arguments would look powerful. It’s no help blaming other people. That gets us no closer to a good outcome.

The deep issue is this: fundamental and blue-sky research (research undertaken for the love of knowledge and from motives of sheer intellectual ambition) is possible on a large scale only with the profound consent of a whole society.

And universities – which are the natural homes of intellectual ambition – are not organised to secure this consent. Those who are fired by the love of knowledge do not see securing such support as fundamental to what they do.

And at an individual level, of course, the task belongs to no particular person. Yet, if we are to carry off the huge task of gaining such committed and widespread support we would have to devote ourselves to a vast project of engagement. We would have to have this task written into the DNA of research culture.

And this is the fateful irony. The motive of intellectual ambition very often goes alongside indifference to public opinion, lack of concern with buy-in from the wider world, hostility to winning over hearts and minds in large numbers.

We want the support that requires a great public but we don’t want to do the things that would win the loyalty of a great public. At worst, we want to demonise the philistines and have their taxes pay for our noble enthusiasms.

I mentioned that there were two motives for research. Aside from the pure pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, research is linked to problem solving. What this means is the solving of other people’s problems. That is, what other people experience as problems.

It starts with a tenderness and ambition that is directed at the needs of others – as they recognise and acknowledge those needs. This is, in effect, entry into a market place. Much research, of course, is conducted in precisely this way beyond the walls of the academy.

And this gives rise to the second great question that universities face with respect to research. If universities devote more of their energies to engagement with markets and public opinion, how will they retain a sense of noble mission – which is one of their defining characteristics? What would the institutions need to be like to carry this off?

My concern at this stage is not to provide a precise answer to either of the great questions. Rather, what I want is to get clear about the questions we really do have to address. That is, the questions that should be central to the debate.

Fundamentally, we are trying to explain to ourselves why research is good and how research will be paid for. Our danger is in asking and answering these questions independently.

We could have a fine account of why research is noble, but fail because we could not work out how to bring this to fruition in the world. Or we could have an account of how to make research pay but fail because we missed the whole point: which is that research is a noble human undertaking.

But not nearly enough people seem to be interested in answering both questions at the same time.

I believe that it is possible to integrate the two demands. And, in fact, that it is a central task of education and of culture to achieve such integration.

Our epochal task is to make our best ideals powerful in the world we happen to have. We must not be Jacobites: devotees of a gracious but lost cause. To avoid that fate we have to think about love and money at the same time. We have to answer the two great questions.