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I recently re-tweeted an announcement that KPU had joined ResearchImpact: a group of Canadian universities dedicated to making research useful, and applicable to real world problems. One of my dedicated followers questioned some of the language used by ResearchImpact, though (to my surprise) did not question why the organization had to forgo the space needed to have its name align with the usual rules of English. It seems very forced to run the words together in an effort to make it hip or different or digitally something.

My follower focussed on the expression Knowledge Mobilization, asking with obvious suspicion what it was supposed to mean. I helpfully gave him a link to a Wikipedia posting, which he (rightly) derided as wiki-fluff that was obviously written by a “knowledge mobilizer”, and, on second reading, I had to agree. Another case of well-intentioned, and essentially simple concepts in both academe and business breeding a whole new language of unnecessary and pompous jargon.

(The irony of course is that this Knowledge Mobilization wiki cites Wikipedia as a good example of KMb  – as those in the know refer to it –  in action: Wikipedia is a good example of a knowledge mobilization tool. It provides a medium through which knowledge can be built and shared among many users.”)

Now, there are lots of places where technical language is entirely necessary because good old clear and plain English simply will not concisely and precisely convey the same information or meaning. Long ago, when I did research and revealed the structures of interesting compounds, I came up with sentences like this:

“Intermediate products have been isolated from the reaction of (4,4,9,9-tetramethyl-5,8-diazadodecane-2,11-dione dihydrazone )nickel(II) perchlorate with butane-2,3-dione which finally yields the macrocyclic product (3,4,7,9,9,14,14,16-octamethyl-1,2,5,6,10,13-hexaazacyclohexa-deca-2,4,6,16-tetraene)nickel(II) perchlorate , [Ni( omht )] (ClO4)2.

I have made the point before that trying to simplify some concepts, especially in science, can lead to analogies and metaphors that are just misleading or wrong or silly: in some cases, the only language you can effectively use is mathematics. And there are many situations where a coded language allows people to be precise and/or fast (medicine, engineering, emergencies etc.)

But in the case of ResearchImpact (I hate having to keep typing it like that) , which “provides knowledge mobilization services to universities, communities and government agencies”, I was worried at first that it seemed contrived.

Maybe it is all related to the blood sport of getting funding for research from various granting agencies and foundations. You want to sound posh and academic and, yes business like (management gurus have lot to answer for in muddying up the Queen’s English by stating the painfully obvious using fancy jargon…..and don’t give me that old chestnut that Shakespeare was inventive with the language ).

To me, the classification of research is simple: there is pure research, which is research for its own sake i.e.  for satisfying our species’ fundamental imagination and curiosity, and without which we would be sunk. My research was like this: none of my work was intended to have any immediate use: it added to the body of knowledge about certain compounds which may or may not one day be of use. By the way, has a use ever been found for Scandium, or did God, when he made the atoms, create this element to just fill a gap in the Periodic Table? (Yes, it is used in trace amounts in alloys of aluminum for military use, and in some halide lamps, but this all since I investigated an obscure compound, which makes me feel old.)

My favorite structure was this one, and we actually made the suggestion that it might explain the magnetic properties of blue copper proteins:

That is the closest I got to anything that might link to the natural world.

I cannot speak for every other discipline, but I am sure that pure research can be identified in all of them, and it always has value.

I am always worried when the political or populist winds blow in the direction of demanding that everything be immediately useful, or work-place related. So, we get rid of the poets and philosophers and theoretical studies of anything? I don’t think so. Aside from denying each person the opportunity to follow her/his passion (and to try and make a living doing so), you actually shrivel aspects of the economy you are are trying to support, you cut the essential links  between pure and applied research, and we’ll all become drones with no ability to think for ourselves.

Applied research depends heavily on pure research, which in turn inspires new questions for exploration that push on the frontiers of our knowledge and understanding of our universe in all its manifestations.

At KPU, we are more applied than pure (pause for snide remarks), but always try to link the 2, hence the value to us of ResearchImpact and KMb (listen to me, getting with the jargon). Whether it is in studies of sustainable ways to control pests, or food safety, or false memory, or issues in our community, KPU works hard to be relevant.

But this is still a very limiting way to think about research and scholarly work in general, especially in an institution driven by teaching. In Scholarship Reconsidered, one of my heroes, Ernest Boyer, developed what has become (imho) the most useful classification, first of all by using the broader term “scholarship” instead of “research”. He identified 4 types of scholarship which we use at KPU:

  • Discovery: i.e. pure research
  • Application: applied research, focused on a problem or issue
  • Integration: can be pure or applied but connects knowledge from more than one discipline: when you think about it, all but the simplest issues require this, and is one of the goals of KMb
  • Teaching: any time a class or seminar convenes with a teacher, it becomes a laboratory for exploring how people teach and learn: any self-respecting teacher does this all the time, sometimes formally and intentionally (collecting data, sharing results); sometimes informally and intuitively.

And somewhere along the line we added the Scholarship of Creativity: for the fine, performing and literary arts and design especially, with their exhibitions, recordings, performances, publications and various other innovations and products, and it has been argued for inclusion in other disciplines as well.

Regarding the Scholarship of Teaching, the Danish language has overlapping language for teaching and for learning, and, as far as I am concerned you can’t have one without the other. And since research is a way in which faculty themselves learn, the differentiation of teaching versus research versus life itself seems silly.

Plus, of course, one of the key outcomes of our teaching is for our graduates to know how to conduct their research as professionals or as citizens as they question everything….. including the unnecessary use of jargon to describe what we do in higher education.


4 Responses

  1. Tony Puddicombe says:

    re your last blog of Aug. 20th.

    I enjoyed reading the blog and thought you explained the many types of scholarship well. I teach in the School of Horticulture and our students feel applied research is a great way to learn.
    One excerpt that surprised me was “By the way, has a use ever been found for Scandium, or did God, when he made the atoms, “. I am wondering how you can justify saying this and still be a scientist?
    I have just finished reading “The God delusion” by Richard Dawkins and found his arguments supporting atheism to be well argued. I was curious to find out how you think evolution can be believed at the same time as believing a God made the atoms?
    I was brought up in the Anglican church and had my own time of discovery at about age 20 when I decided that the idea of a God creating the world did not make sense to me.
    My comments are not meant to be inflammatory but in the spirit of academic discourse.

    • Thomas Carey says:

      In Management Science, there is an emerging notion of “dual-impact research” which aims to address applied problems while simultaneously advancing the general body of knowledge in a subject domain.

      For example, the chapter titles in the 2011 book Useful Research: Advancing Theory and Practice include the following
      – Can Relevance and Rigor Co-exist
      – Sticky Findings: Research Practitioners Find Useful and
      – Insights from the Practitioner-Scholar

    • Alan Davis says:

      Thanks for this Tony: I was being silly of course . I studied under Sir Ronald Nyholm at UCL (an Aussie) and he often used humour to brighten up his lectures. So, to explain the spin of electrons, he said “when God made the atom, he forgot to tell the electrons what to do”.

      As for the existence of a deity, like Iris Dement, I am happy to just “let the mystery be”. It has nothing to do with being a scientist or a poet.,

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