Friday, April 30, 2021

Ongoing studies into the goals and utility of academic research


I saw this article in the newspaper today and posted my thoughts about it on Facebook.  I've since deleted the post, but here is a copy...

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I always love it when scientists discover things that ordinary people have known for centuries. So it turns out those pelicans you see gliding above the waves are actually saving energy by catching updrafts off the waves? Whooda thunk?!

Well now we have a mathematical model of this phenomenon. Do you know what we can do with this information? Nothing! Do you know what business or government agency will use this information? Abso-fucking-lutely none!

This information has now been published in the scholarly journal "Movement Ecology", which is so obscure and has a readership so tiny, that probably no more than 10 people in the world will read this research paper in its entirety. The researcher however, got to play around with physics equations, which is no doubt their idea of a fun time. Now they'll get kudos from their fellow researchers, and go on to live a life contributing very little to society, and be able to go to international conferences and take sabbaticals, and generally be on vacation for the rest of their life, at taxpayer expense.

Thank gawd most of the important research going on in the world doesn't happen at fucked universities and isn't conducted by stupid people with PhDs. 




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An oceanographer scientist that I know saw my post and responded as follows...

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Why are you so angry all the time?

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This was clearly a defense mechanism, an indication that she had no intention of answering the questions I'd posed in my post, but rather, to sidetrack the discussion and make it seem that my opinion is worthless and there's something fundamentally wrong with my psyche.  So, rather than create a kerfuffle in front of a large audience online, I messaged her privately....

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Why am I so angry? Because I never get an answer when I ask what the goals and utility of that kind of research are. What is its application?  After 17 years of working in academia (and not being good at the job), and another 15 years working in the research center of a major Silicon Valley company, I can see the difference in research styles. In the mid-20th century scientists were splitting the atom and going to the moon. My PhD thesis, submitted in the year 2000, was about a mathematical model of a neuron. Here I am 20 years later and  what has that achieved? Meanwhile, literally billions of people have miniature computers in their hands and a high-speed roving connection to the internet, which has enabled a whole slew of other technologies to exist (like this messenger app we were using for example).
That's ok. The things I want to say about it are best not said on Facebook and not said to you, as a matter of respect. I have a blog for that kind of stuff. My blogs get more readership than most scientific papers, and I know that because I have the numbers.

Peace, love, and stuff. 😊

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To this she responded with silence at first, which is another defense mechanism commonly used by academics when confronted about the application of their work).  So I wrote to her again...

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Actually, your comment "Why are you so angry all the time?" was a defense mechanism to avoid answering my questions. I've seen academics and scientists use various defense mechanisms when confronted about the goals and utility of their work. They change the subject, get defensive, give a strawman argument, compare themselves or their work to great scientists or discoveries of the past. That's ok, I get it. It's all very very important things they're doing.  Gotta keep the dream alive.

Peace, love, and stuff 😊

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She finally replied....

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Jesus. No, I really wanted to know why you are so angry. I didn’t read the article you posted, just saw that it had something to do with pelicans. I did see a release from Scripps that describes it and it sounds like the utility is in the area of improving flight efficiency (they specifically cited drones) and also a more general result of a better understanding of the ocean/air interface, which is important for things like weather prediction. But I know, in your opinion it’s useless if it doesn’t put a better microchip in your pocket. Anyway I have to get back to working on locating fronts for the navy (so they can use their sonar to locate and kill the bad guys) and determining how good our ocean/atmosphere resolution has to be to get it right.

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To which I replied...

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Oh yes, the uses that scientists dream up for their research AFTER they've done it are truly amazing. "Well, it could be applied to this, or that, or something else". But it probably never will be. They like to stretch idea of what it might be used for. I'm glad you've found a use for your work. I was beginning to think I'd get no response at all, which is another commonly used defense mechanism. This discussion is rounding out my blog nicely. After all, you're a public figure, so you won't mind if I put your words in the public domain.

P, L, 😊& S 

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There was some more discussion about funding for academic research, and the state of my apparent anger. We caught up on old news, and then I gave my final reply...

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I guess that's the difference between academic research and engineering research. In academic research you apply for funding and justify it with a use. There is a lot of competition for the limited amount of funding available. In engineering research you have a product people want to buy, that provides a service they want or solves a problem they want solved. You don't have to ask people for money or justify it, they are willing to give you money because they want and need your product.  The use is inherent and obvious to the product. The product can end up becoming so popular that you cant find a rake big enough to rake in the cash you get for your product, and the cash piles up in enormous mounds. 😊

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And that was that.


- Dave Bad Person