The Geomblog: On knowledge for knowledge’s sake

Suresh is complaining against the current for-profit trend in research:

The desire for knowledge for its own sake seems almost quaint in these days of interdisciplinary research, justifying one’s bottom line, monetizing one’s research, and so on and so forth.

I read him in the following way: he is afraid that governments will stop giving money for pure research and keep their most generous funding for industrial-oriented research.

I actually disagree in the following way: if you need a lot of cash to do your research, you’ve got to justify the use of the money. Justify it to whom? To the people who give you the money. This seems only fair. If you want to do research for its own sake, and you also want a lot of money, well, tough.

Many people do research using their own time and very little money. They don’t have 10 assistants, one super-computer and a large operating budget. Einstein had none of these things. If you need these things, if you need a large budget, then justify it… explain how it will make the country you live in richer or safer… if you can’t, and still need the money, then beg. Or use a friend’s gear. I don’t know. Don’t claim that the government must fund pure research. I don’t buy it.

No researcher has a God-given right to large funding. In fact, this very assumption is what is killing true research: we’ve come to measure research by how much funding is given. Hence, if no funding is given, no research is done.

I even go the other way: many funding agencies throw their money away without enough care. For example, the current trend to keep funding more and more graduate students on the basis that we are training “highly qualified personnel” is shameful. The government says to the public: we are investing money in training more graduate students because we need them in this new century… but the truth is that we really don’t need that many graduate students and that many of these students would have been better off doing something else with their lifes. My previous post was about Tim Bray… Tim started out in a university project, but as far as I can tell he never was a graduate student. [ Update: indeed Tim doesn’t have a graduate degree.] This was no handicap to him, obviously.

Do I believe in “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”? Absolutely. Do I think that governments must fund “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” above and beyond the funding universities already receive as institutions of knowledge? No.

Where I live, most university professors get to spend half their time doing research. They usually have access to decent computers and related technological support. They even get funding to go to conferences. All of this is pretty standard. I claim that on this basis, they can easily do research for its own sake…

(Sorry Suresh if I misunderstood you.)

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

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