Useless research at Universities

Discussion in 'Science & Society' started by HighlyFanatic, Dec 1, 2001.

  1. HighlyFanatic Registered Member

    Some research, im sorry to going no where, without a practical application; maybe some research is going to aid in a "better understanding of concepts," but when you look at some of the research going makes you wonder how trivial it really is.

    Where in the US, does most of the major innovations take place (in terms of applying research, into a practical uses).....MIT ?
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  3. Stryder Keeper of "good" ideas. Valued Senior Member

    There are many reasons for research appearing trivial.

    1: Funding. Without funding research in universities suffers, of course Private companies research things where the students might get a job later on, and if they had done the research at a university they probably wouldn't get paid for it, as they would only be academically accredited.

    2: The who idea of a university is to learn and to concern yourself not with the matter of what the research is but how you construct the information you recieve from your research.

    3: Sometimes you can spot things that were previously missed in certain re-enacted experiments, which might just turn out to be your claim to fame and turn you down a new destiny path.

    4: Understand that all new theories are based upon facts that are already known, and that knowing something within one field of study might attribute to understanding something else in another. (This is most noticable with artificial intelligence creation and even things like the creation of velcro from see a particular plant that exists in nature.)

    I suppose you could say that we just look for the shape of the gap in the puzzle that needs filling, and you never know when that piece will just fit into place.

    5: Sometimes the research is only done to compete with Universities within other countries and other times another university will be doing a particular study that you don't want to copy when you could be studying something else.
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  5. Merlijn curious cat Registered Senior Member

    It is an art

    I feel comfortable with the seemingly uselessness of some research at universities. Actually I feel bad about the pressure on universities to do research with obvious applications.
    Why not have that kind of research done by large companies and other organizations.
    I feel scientific understanding is a part of culture, just like art. both need funding and have no obvious direct social relevance. But they are important for a culture.

    My feeling is that the reason the early Middle Ages of Europe are looked upon as being less civilized is that people were mostly concerned with "relevant questions" (whatever the reason). Name several West-Europeans from the era 400-900 AD. Most will only know 1 or 2. But naming several West-Europeans from 1500-1800 is much easier. And most of the names will be of scientists and artists.
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  7. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Many major advances in knowledge come from "pure" research. That is how new knowledge is generated. There is a trend at present towards "applied" research aimed at finding specific things. For example, people might deliberately set out to find a cure for AIDS. Whether such a cure will come from the deliberate program or as a result of somebody being interested in a seemingly insignificant and unrelated problem is yet to be seen. Science often turns things up in unexpected places.
  8. Merlijn curious cat Registered Senior Member


    Serendipity, my dear James R.
  9. SeekerOfTruth Unemployed, but Looking Registered Senior Member

    This is a major problem in the United States. Prior to the 90's, the US Government, through its Department of Defense and NASA, was the primary driver of research activities in the US and the major funder of "basic" research activities that lead to commercial successes such as CDMA. The problem is that the US government has, over the last 10-12 years, consistently reduced its commitment to "basic" research because the Department of Defense has been extremely interested in low-cost COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) technologies. This is because the commercial sector has slowly become the major driver of R&D and technology in the US through the development of commercial products. Commercial products have technology timelines that are on the order of 12 - 18 months, whereas old DOD projects had technology timelines on the order of 5-10 years.

    The US Government has vastly reduced its funding to Universities for basic research because they are more interested in funding a commercial entity that will produce them a low-cost product than they are in funding a University that will at best produce a paper on some new scientific discovery that may have initially limited application.

    So where does this leave us? It leaves us with the commercial sector becoming the leading R&D "funder" in the United States. The problem with this is that commercial organizations are interested in profit and the bottom line, therefor research programs are geared more and more towards producing specific technologies or products. Research in the "basic" areas is highly risky and has a low return on investment from a commercial perspective, therefor less and less of it is being done today.

    There are additional ramnifications of this problem. Right now, major universities are having a problem retaining their brightest PhDs because the commercial sector has been hiring them away primarily because the research dollars from the US government have vanished because the US government has vastly reduced its research funding.

    If this problem continues, there will be very little "basic" research going on and the Universities in the US will no longer have bright young PhDs doing research. This begs the question of who will be teaching in our Universities?
  10. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Hi SeekerofTruth,

    That's interesting. But if you think the US is bad, you should see Australia.

    Most basic research in Australia is funded ultimately by the government, although some is commercial. A lot of research takes place in universities, whose funding has been progressively cut back over the last few years. For example, physics departments have been closing down all over the country.

    What funding there is for science institutes and the like is directed, as in the US, to developing specific marketable technologies. There is a large concentration on medical research in particular at the moment. Partly as a result of this Australia is a world leader in various medical areas.

    However, things which are seen to have no "application" are looked on disfavourably. Arts departments in universities are in crisis, with whole subjects no longer being taught, or being merged with other subjects. Areas such as history are suffering as departments close.

    The government keeps saying it wants business to contribute to basic R&D, but the incentives (e.g. tax concessions etc.) are not great for companies to do this.

    One of the major issues in the recent national election was funding for education and research. Both major political parties in the country seem to agree that these are important, yet strangely neither is making them a high priority. There is much lobbying going on right now, and we can only hope that awareness is raised where it matters.

    There is a well known phenomenon known in Australia as the "brain drain". Educated people here (PhDs etc) often end up going overseas (e.g. to the US) because there are simply no jobs in Australia for them. Thus, we are losing some of the people potentially most likely to help Australia's future position in the world.
  11. Merlijn curious cat Registered Senior Member

    As you may have understood, here in the Netherlands it is the same

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  12. Chagur .Seeker. Registered Senior Member

    James R ...

    In your reply to SeekerOfTruth you make the following comment:
    Which makes me wonder how are 'businesses' contributing if they are being subsidized by 'tax consessions'?

    Seems like a roundabout way to have the R&D done.

    Take care.
  13. SeekerOfTruth Unemployed, but Looking Registered Senior Member

    Re: James R ...

    Good point Chagur.

    However from a business perspective there has to be some type of return on an investment in order to motivate the business to make the investment. The problem is that today, most businesses are too focused on the short term, and by short term I mean 6 to 12 months, to consider basic R&D a good investment. The returns on basic R&D are few and far between, the problem is that those returns can tend to be earth shattering when a new discovery is made. Despite this, businesses just don't consider it a good investment if it is not returning profit in the 6 to 12 month time frame.

    Without some type of return, maybe in the way of tax breaks, why would businesses invest in basic R&D at universities?
  14. mrk Wheel Rider Registered Senior Member

    R& D Subsidy

    ALL business can write off 100% of R & D as a "business" cost, eg: NOT pay taxes on it because it is deducted against revenue/income. So, it is quite rightly, "tax subsidied". However that company has to have the money to do it. They also have to see a 'need' to do it. Some companies, eg: Royal, are quite happy making the same product for DECADES, as their COSTS decrease with the LACK of retooling necessary--It's why Henry Ford didn't retool the tin Lizzy for 25 years. Edsel prevailed against him, and won: thus the model A.

    An excellent example was that Henry Ford hired 6 excellent mechanical engineers and asked for a V-eight engine (which at the time was created by welding two four cylinder engines together). He was told by all that it could not be done. He locked them in a lab with the necesarry acoutrements, and only let them out for lunch, saying "I WANT one!".

    They had a V-8 in LESS than 6 MOS. So for 17 years Ford had a LOCK on a particular V-8. While the others altered the design sufficently to obtain similar patents, His was the first.

    Uh, the ancient Greeks invented the steam engine about 400 years before christ showed up. They saw no application for it, and the original design was just a bit crude... it was cute toy.

    An interesting postulation would be, "What if they had seen an aplication for them?"
  15. Merlijn curious cat Registered Senior Member

    We would be talking Greek now?
  16. SeekerOfTruth Unemployed, but Looking Registered Senior Member

    Re: R& D Subsidy

    This is a good argument for my point. It seems to be that a typical 'basic' R&D quite often fails to accomplish its goal, but discovers something new that may eventually be turned into something major. Without 'basic' types of R&D, that are at a minimum encouraged that failure is acceptable, these fortuitous discoveries won't be made.
  17. Chagur .Seeker. Registered Senior Member

  18. SeekerOfTruth Unemployed, but Looking Registered Senior Member

    Very interesting Chagur.

    And a very good point how and why a company needs to invest money in R&D without worrying about the possibility of failure. If you think about his success rate, it was only 25%. He succeeded with a valuable product only after being allowed to fail with the first three. Not many US companies would consider doing that today and that is a major problem for the US.

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