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Suresh Menon: investigating research

Our columnist critically analyses research, which investigates whether research is useless or valuable

Suresh Menon
26 Jul 2016 | 12:21 pm

This is really exciting news, and since I don’t like too much excitement on a Friday morning, I shall approach it in a gentle, roundabout way. According to a headline in a newspaper – and I’m not making this up – ‘New research says research is valuable; researchers glad’. I shall pause briefly to give you time to read that again.

Some research outfit has spent money on researching research and has concluded that research is good. And this has made researchers glad.

If that sounds too much like the International Astrological Union concluding that astrology is valuable or the Flat Earth Society reiterating the Earth is flat, let us not lose sight of what it is that binds all of these findings together: Research.

So, when the National Science Board Commission in the US, looking into the future prospects of the National Science Foundation, finally concludes that research is valuable, then we either cherchez la femme – find the problem, as the French say – or follow the money, as Deep Throat, the then-secret source told the Watergate investigators.

There is no femme to cherchez, but the science foundation has about $2.5 billion set aside for research annually. It is unclear whether the research that gave it such rousing endorsement was funded from this kitty, but it would be nice if it were. There is an appealing circularity about it, and who doesn’t like perfect cycles?

But it is the newspaper heading that is intriguing. Yet, one can’t help wondering what if the research had concluded differently – that new research had shown that research is useless. Could that be taken at face value? Because, if research, which is useless, shows that research is useless, then that merely confirms that research is valuable. Every schoolchild knows that two negatives make a positive, even if Shakespeare occasionally allowed two negatives to make a negative – but then he wasn’t a mathematician.

This is probably a good time to apologise for using the word research so often in this column, but indulge me. I shall use it just one more time, and then leave you in peace.

The American economist Thorstein Veblen put the whole notion in perspective. ‘The outcome of any serious research,’ he wrote, ‘can only be to make two questions grow where one question grew before.’ Or, as in this case, half a dozen questions grow where none had existed before.

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Suresh Menon

Suresh Menon

is a writer based in India. In his youth he set out to change the world but later decided to leave it as it is.