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.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

James Fryer illustration (27 July 2017)

It is not Luddism to be cautious about destroying an academic publishing industry that has served us well, says Marilyn Deegan

Jeffrey Beall, associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado Denver

Creator of controversial predatory journals blacklist says some peers are failing to warn of dangers of disreputable publishers

Hand squeezing stress ball
Working 55 hours per week, the loss of research periods, slashed pensions, increased bureaucracy, tiny budgets and declining standards have finally forced Michael Edwards out
Kayaker and jet skiiers

Nazima Kadir’s social circle reveals a range of alternative careers for would-be scholars, and often with better rewards than academia

hole in ground

‘Drastic action’ required to fix multibillion-pound shortfall in Universities Superannuation Scheme, expert warns