Curiouser and curiouser 2

October 29, 2009

In his letter commenting on Times Higher Education's "defence of the importance of university research being independent of political or economic goals" (8 October), Adam Corner argues that the purpose of research should be "the advancement of socially useful knowledge", otherwise we risk a return to "intellectual elitism".

It's certainly true that research is not about satisfying personal curiosity or pursuing pointless knowledge, but part of the problem is how the "socially useful" is to be judged and by whom. Indeterminacy is a feature of the relationship between the production and use of research knowledge: it's often hard to know what will turn out to be useful and what won't.

In order to build knowledge, it is necessary to work on problems that do not appear to have any immediate, socially useful pay-off. Furthermore, the problems tackled must be viable: it is no good tackling socially important issues while failing to provide worthwhile knowledge. Insisting that researchers are in the best position to decide what problems should be investigated is not intellectual elitism, or if it is then elitism is a good thing.

Allowing research to be controlled by those who purport to speak on behalf of "societal need", or wish to assess it in terms of "impact", risks undermining its capacity to produce worthwhile knowledge of any kind.

Martyn Hammersley, Professor of educational and social research, The Open University.

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