My senior Professor friend dropped by to my office when I was busy preparing list of research topics for the master’s students for the new academic year. The Professor looked at my list and exclaimed – “Prasad, you are taking this task rather seriously. Identifying research that makes a sense is relatively easy but have you ever thought of floating research topics that lead to inconsequential outcomes?” I was taken by a surprise – I knew that my friend had radical thoughts and so I asked him why? Isn’t it crazy to come up with research topics that don’t make a sense? I pulled up a chair for him to sit and passed on an ash tray to rest his cigar.
“Look at our departments last 10 years of research topics. Most of the dissertation topics have been well thought, well linked and organized to address the current and anticipated problems in the environmental industry and governance. Almost every dissertation has led to a refereed international journal publication – leave alone numerous presentations in the conferences and seminars. Many of the research outcomes have influenced practice in the industry as these topics were identified in partnership” He went on lighting up his favourite cigar
I was wondering whether the Professor was serious or sarcastic. My own assessment was that research in my department was simply patchy, personality driven and addressing topics that were many times irrelevant. And there was no research planning and sufficient supervision provided to the students to guide and inspire. Yes, papers did get published in the journals but then this publishing activity was mostly driven by “publish or perish” pressure. I always wondered what impact these publications had on the practice, planning and policy making. I thought that the investment of time and resources in dissertations could have been much better and was not utilized the way it should!
I remembered one of the famous papers by Ettinger in 1965 titled “How to plan inconsequential research project”. This paper was published in American Society of Civil Engineers, Journal of Sanitary Engg Division. The paper was full of satire and had drawn a flurry of comments.
In his article, Ettinger noted that doing research with consequences was potentially dangerous, and the water profession had developed methods to protect it from consequences while maintaining funding. Among the “techniques” he described was the anecdote:
A bystander passes a drunk on all fours on the sidewalk under a street light looking for a $20 bill. After failing to find it, he asks the drunk where he had lost the money. The drunk says “over there in that vacant lot.” Bystander asks, “Why aren’t we looking there?” Drunk says, “There are rocks and broken glass in the lot and the light is much better here on the corner.”
Ettinger had come up with nine categories of inconsequential research. One of the categories was the “data hungry” professor & student who were constantly looking for some data – no matter whether the data made any sense or any practical relevance. So one could link data on ambient air quality in a city on RSPM to health records of 2000 employees working in Software Technology Park (who worked indoors over long hours and in AC environment). Interestingly, results in this work showed high correlation! Other research category was platinum bridge where a double deck bridge at San Francisco was designed in platinum (since nobody had done such a design before!) knowing fully well that so much of platinum was not simply available on the earth and besides the bridge was not affordable!
I wanted to interrupt but the Professor continued
Contributing research that is inconsequential has so many advantages. Firstly, to conduct such a research is like a breeze and does not put too much load or stress to the student and professor. They can go easy. The research topic may sound sometimes drab and questionable, but then you can always dress the dissertation up to make the outcomes look smart. More importantly, this kind of research does not interfere with the on-going practices and policies of the world – so whatever we currently do – we keep doing it without any disturbance or disruption. Everything remains as is – and it can be so blissful. I really hate therefore research that is consequential. Who wants to change?
I thought my Professor friend had a point and had made a very interesting argument. I was silent.
The Professor took a deep puff and extinguished the cigar. While leaving my room he winked “Do you still want to float your kind of research topics?. I introspected, looked at my list and realized that I better change the topics now.
I asked for a strong coffee from the pantry as changing the present topics to the topics of inconsequential research was not going to be an easy task. It was going to be a challenge! I realized that that’s where I will need help from my colleagues. as they were more experienced. And so I walked to the faculty room.
(PS Dear Readers of this blog, this post is clearly a satire but don’t take me wrong as a pessimist, acidic or sadist– Indeed a lot of consequential research happens and we need to encourage more of this kind of research.
I would recommend editorial by Thomas Walski titled “Consequential Research” –that is published very recently in the Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, Volume 140, Issue 5 (May 2014). (See http://ascelibrary.org/doi/abs/10.1061/%28ASCE%29WR.1943-5452.0000430
In his editorial, Walski notes
Not all research can be ground breaking or award winning or even consequential, but an excessive amount of what gets published seems inconsequential, primarily because it ignores real-world considerations. By looking at the way the aforementioned top researchers approached their work, young researchers can produce more consequential work.
He recommends following 10 steps for consequential research (in the context of optimization of water supply and distribution networks)
- Define the problem;
- Talk with people in the real world;
- Read literature;
- Conduct experiments;
- Better define the problem;
- Optimize (if needed);
- Develop lessons learned; and
Do you think it will be good to create a webpage to encourage posting of research topics at Masters/Doctoral level as offered at various universities/institutions in environment as a “Research Gateway”? It may follow a simple format like title, abstract, student, professor, university, year with contact details. This information when available could help both students and professors, provide ideas, spur collaborations, strike synergy and avoid duplication. I will put up such a page on www.ekonnect.net
And do read article by Ettinger (1965). “How to plan an inconsequential research project.” J. Sanit. Eng. Div., 91(4), 19–22. Its hilarious and rather thought provoking. You will simply love it.
(image sourced from www.graphix1.co.uk)