13: ‘Research on’ versus ‘research for’

Let us begin by asserting that any piece of research is concerned with a ‘system of interest’ – henceforth ‘the system’ (cf. Systems thinking). We can then make a distinction between the ‘science of the system’ and the ‘applied science relating to the system’. In the second case, the implication is that the system offers challenges and problems that the science (of that system or possibly also with ‘associated’ systems) might help with. In research terms, this distinction can be roughly classified as ‘research on’ the system and ‘research for’ the system. This might be physics on the one hand, and engineering on the other; or biological sciences and medicine. There will be many groups of disciplines like this where there is a clear division of labour – though whether this division is always either clear or efficient is a matter of debate. In the case of urban research (and possibly the social sciences more generally), possibly because it is an under-developed interdisciplinary area, there is a division of labour but with a significant grey area in between. But there is also a concern in my mind that the division is too sharp and that the balance of research effort is more focused on ‘research on’ rather than contributing to ‘research for’.

There are a number of complications that we have to work to resolve. First, there is the fact that there are disciplinary agendas on cities – in economics, geography and sociology for example where they ought to be interdisciplinary. But it does illustrate the fact that there is a ‘research on’ versus ‘research for’ challenge. The ‘research on’ school are concerned with how cities work, the ‘research for’ group with, for example, how to ‘solve’ (if that is the right question) traffic congestion; or housing problems; or social disparities. It is a long list (cf. Real challenges).

A second complicating issue is the research councils ‘impact’ agenda. I have no problem with a requirement that all research should be intended to have impact. The opposite is pretty absurd. However, that depends on the possibility of the impact being intellectual impact, within the science; that is, impact within ‘research on’. What seems to have happened is that the research councils’ definition has narrowed and impact in their sense is intended to relate to ‘real’ problems – in other words, to ‘research for’. Consider physics and engineering: while the tool kits overlap in some respects, they, and the associated mindsets, are pretty different. The same could be argued for research on cities except in this case, we don’t have labels that are analogous to physics and engineering. So we have to invent our own! From a research council perspective, this has not been clearly handled. There is an expectation that for any application, there will be a ‘pathways to impact’ statement. If the research in question is of a ‘research on’ kind, and if the associated tools do not obviously fit ‘research for’, then this is very difficult and there is quite a lot of jumping through small dimension hoops.

A third issue is the influence of the REF (in the UK) on research priorities. Again, there is an element of required impact and yet the bulk of the panels are made up of ‘research on’ academics. It is even argued – or is it just in our subconscious? – that ‘pure’ research is more worthwhile in REF terms than ‘applied’. It was once suggested to me in the context of a university Business School – not in these words, that the ‘research on firms’ was more important for the REF than ‘research for firms’ – because the latter could be considered as consultancy and therefore of a lower grade. There is some truth in this in that ‘research on’ can produce wider ranging ‘general results’ that offer insight as opposed to specific case studies that don’t generalise. But in the social sciences at least, it is the case studies that eventually lead to the general, grounded in evidence.

There is then a fourth issue, more like a challenge: if impact is really desirable – and it is – how can the users get the best from the researchers? It is often argued that the UK has very high quality research but, to a substantial extent, fail to reap the rewards of application. Indeed there have been commissions of many kinds for decades on how academic research can be better linked to application – I would guess a study roughly once every two years. There are various ‘solutions’ and many have been tried but success has been, at best, partial. The ‘research on’ community remain the largest group of academic researchers and retain the ‘prestige’ that serve it well in many ways. There are significant straws in the wind: a shifting of research resources in the direction of Innovate UK and the establishment of the catapults; some redirection of research council funding. But my guess is that there is a battle for hearts and minds still being fought.

So what do we need? Some clarity of thought, some changes of mindset especially in terms of prestige, and perhaps above all, some demonstrators that show that ‘research for’ can be just as exciting as ‘research on’ – in many cases much more so. In the urban research world, we are luck in principle in that we can have it both ways: discoveries in the science often have pretty immediate applications, but there are opportunities for more ‘research on’ researchers to spend at least some time in the ‘research for’ community!

Alan Wilson

May 2015

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