Just attended a workshop on Google Glass. The challenges of a new medium were clearly present. Filmmakers Hannah Roodman and Ben Milstein described the process of shooting a documentary film about the relationship between Hasidic Jews and Caribbeans in the Crown Heights area of New York. Their question was, "what story could Glass help you tell?" The position of the camera above the eye provides a first person view of events and people. It was not clear whether there really was a difference with traditional modes of camera use and the Glass as a technology. Movements were rapid and often from angles that would otherwise have been difficult. But, it was hard to tell if we were looking at a new medium or an old one. More time will be needed to understand this and see whether a shift is really taking place.
I am puzzled. Highly skilled artisans, artists, creators and designers are perhaps among the most sophisticated researchers our society produces. In order to succeed, they have to not only understand the context of their creative work, but also the impact and possible market for their ideas and objects They have to develop sophisticated models and prototypes to test their ideas and they have to be able to translate their research and practice into something that can be understood by many different people often with quite differing interests. They have to have skills that might best be described as ethnographic so as to understand if not sense both the demands of their communities and also the resistances those communities have to change and new insights. They have to negotiate complex collaborative arrangements to produce outputs that will reflect great technical expertise as well as vision.
Yet, for the most part, their work is neither recognized for its research value, nor substantively funded as research in Canada. (Great Britain and Australia have overcome this problem.) My sense is that conventional research in this country has over time become defined in a rather narrow way to benefit those people, institutions and disciplines that have historically received money from governments, foundations and private benefactors. For example, what is the difference between a researcher in political science and one who studies and researches politics in order to produce a film? Does a list of publications and books mean more than a list of well-made documentaries? Today in Canada it is still unusual for a funding agency to accept the CV of someone who has devoted themselves to media and forms of expression that are not traditional. It would be even more unusual to accept a work of art like an installation as evidence of rigour, forethought, insight and inventive thinking. These are among the criteria that are expected by juries in assessing the value of applications for funding.
I cannot go into the history of funding for disciplinary research in Canada, nor examine within this context, the very particular mandates of the funding agencies that have over time developed specific areas of emphasis to the exclusion of many of the creative disciplines. The purpose of this short piece is to raise some issues about the future of research within the conventional boundaries that have been in place in Canada for decades. The secondary purpose is to argue that the models presently in place and in use by the main funding agencies are tired, reductive and repetitive and that the standards used to evaluate research have precipitously narrowed over the last fifteen years.
Qualitative and quantitative research are based on a set of standards and criteria that have evolved over time within the context of disciplines that are for the most part pursued within the university context. Those disciplines range from the hard sciences, medicine and engineering through to the “soft” social sciences and humanities. The fields involved are diverse and often contentious. Some the disciplines are newer than others with the more scientific health-related disciplines receiving the largest amount of money. This is because of their perceived utility to society, the assumption that medical research for example, will have the most immediate impact and the further assumption that innovation occurs in those areas because of their empirical nature.
The common and dominant popular metaphor for research is the science laboratory, an environment of experimentation within which purposes and goals are supposedly clearer than research that might be pursued in a library or through fieldwork. The other metaphor and it is one that also rules the popular imagination, is that research has to have concrete outcomes for it to be valid. In other words, “real” research will produce “cures” in medicine or a better understanding of physical reality or technological innovation. Of course, good research in any discipline will hopefully have productive outcomes. That is a given. But, good research is rarely linear and often (as is the case with AIDS, for example) takes decades to produce results.
In fact, laboratories are notoriously conservative places often using research paradigms that produce little value either for participants or for the public. (See the work of Bruno Latour, but also the work of Thomas Kuhn for analyses of the cultures and working practices of scientific research.) This does not mean that universities should close those labs or shut down those disciplines that show little for the sometimes-massive investment in them. It does mean, however, that policy makers have to look with great care at accepted and conventional assumptions about output, results and their translation into highly specialized journals. In saying this, I am not suggesting that the only model for research is an applied one. In fact, I am arguing the opposite.
Research in all its varieties is fundamental to all forms of learning and the development of new knowledge and is the foundation upon which new, useful and great ideas come into the public sphere. The assumption that there is one method or one way to arrive at results is something that most good researchers would argue against. And yet, that is the reality of the distinctive manner in which research is funded in Canada. It also underlies the assumption that the PhD is the only consistently valid tool of evaluation of researchers who wish to pursue innovative ideas, so that for example, an MFA is seen to be less significant even if it is a terminal degree for some professions.
Part of the challenge, part of the beauty of research is that it trains the minds of learners, researchers and teachers and provides everyone with the intellectual and practical tools they need to pursue their interests and their passions sometimes with important and positive results. Research builds on disciplinary histories and practices, mode of enquiry, crafts and the multi-faceted use of technology.
This potent combination is also at the heart of post-secondary education and learning and is the source of what makes universities and colleges so important to our society. However, value in research can be drawn from many sources and from many different practices. The isolation of research into particular institutions and specialized disciplines slowly leads to practices that are less innovative than they could or should be. This is largely because of the manner in which disciplines develop, their tendency to devolve into silos and most importantly, the departmental and faculty structure within universities, which tends to validate the history and shape of specific disciplines.
In Canada, funding agencies have bought into the argument that excellence can only be found and developed in large universities, which have infrastructures to support their ambitious research goals. Often and ironically, the faculties in those universities are no larger than their smaller sister institutions, but nevertheless garner the majority of the money in any disciplinary competition. Excellence has become a quantitative game. Fund enough research in one place and you will undoubtedly have some winners. Very little research has been done on faculty at the large universities who do not provide research that matches their ambitions, particularly in areas like the social sciences and the humanities.
Public policy in this area has to change. In particular, Canadian funding agencies have to realize that they are not recognizing value, innovation and creativity in most of the institutions across the country. Instead, they are perpetuating a vague notion of excellence based on the capacity of large universities to garner most of the money. All of that would be fine, if the claims about research being made by those large institutions were not based on exclusivity, to the detriment of the quite extraordinary richness of the work going on in many other institutions and as is often the case within the creative disciplines. The latter receive an infinitesimally small amount both compared to the number of people seeking funding and to the growing importance of the creative industries in Canada.