“Too theoretical, too rigid, too little innovation, too detached from reality.” The going is tough in scientific research today. Its impact is frequently too limited, Dr Marco Busi claims. As befits a good researcher, he has hit a raw nerve. But he also offers guidelines for researchers who do strive to make an impact and really want to make a difference.
Dr Marco Busi was the guest speaker at a conference on the theme of Striving for Research that Matters. It was attended by participants and lecturers from the Vlerick DBA programme (Doctorate in Business Administration). His approach was not to give a lecture in the traditional sense of the word, but instead to lead an animated discussion of a number of pertinent research questions. “What is research?” was one such question.
What is research?
The debate soon heated up. For one participant, research is about the reasons and mechanisms behind things. Another sees research as an attitude, a mindset to approach all that is presented as ‘new’ (It’s all about curiosity). Someone else feels that a researcher should mainly tackle practical issues and subsequently conceptualise them. However, another voice contributed, it is important to return to practice once you have done that.
And what about Dr Busi? He claims that research is a quest for the unconventional. It transforms that which is ‘atypical’ into the standard. Thus coincidence is removed and potential appears.
What are the ills afflicting modern research?
Scientific research can influence how people live and work. And yet too few researchers genuinely achieve that impact in Busi’s opinion. Researchers give each other a pat on the back with every publication. Unfortunately, that is not the appropriate – and certainly not the only – measure of value or impact.
Researchers are bound by academic rules concerning publications and output. But are those rules and measures the correct ones, Busi wonders. Because if you have to deliver twelve articles a year, small research questions are the highest attainable goal. Under this kind of pressure to publish, you can hardly permit yourself to tackle all-encompassing issues or attempt to offer answers to the Big Questions. In short: your impact will almost inevitably be disappointing.
From a culture of measuring to a Nobel Prize culture
If we want to go back to generating research with impact, we have to address the way we currently conduct that research. In order to achieve that impact, Dr Busi claims that we need to break with the way we interpret, measure and reward talent and quality.
In Busi’s view, we have to make a significant shift: from measuring output to valorising input. As a researcher, you must ensure that the conditions of your input – all your questions and parameters – are determined stringently. It is as if you were going to hatch a chick under a heat lamp: only when we adopt that ‘incubation mindset’, as Busi calls it, can we make the switch from a rigid measuring culture to a brilliant Nobel Prize culture.
Is there a manual for this?
What are the criteria that a researcher needs to have impact? Unfortunately there is no set recipe. But there are a few guidelines:
1. Find the intersections in the system
There are always three players in the research game: the first is the researcher who generates research. The second player, the university or the company, serves as an incubator for the research. The third, the publisher or media, circulates the research.
Those three parties need to agree on what the goal of research should be. They must broaden their perspective and identify the common added value. And in doing so, they should not appraise research in terms of its conclusions but with respect to the question and the method applied. Not based on outcome, in other words, but on content.
2. Tackle a romantic problem
Be aware of why you are doing research: not for the dissertation itself, but because of your passion. Don’t walk away from your moral duty or shy away from the unknown. Read everything you can about your subject, keep an open mind, search for things that others don’t see and above all, go for the romantic problem. Dare to dream of a solution beyond your dreams.
3. Take a creative leap
According to management scientist Henry Mintzberg, it is complete nonsense to keep wanting to reproduce the same old methodologies, most of which are quantitative. It works for some, he says, but by no means for everyone. Genuinely creative minds break free from that mould. They realise they are doing, or have found, something that is genuinely interesting. They pursue it. That ‘creative leap’ by the genuine researcher is not open to everyone. But it should always be your ambition.