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Let users decide if research is relevant

By Arun Sharma - posted Friday, 20 May 2005


The debate about the effect of research, the relationship between effect and excellence and whether end users should be included in the peer review process is an interesting one.

It is a reminder of an incident last year when a colleague from the US, Jeff Ullman, was visiting Sydney for the scientific advisory group meeting of National ICT Australia. The meeting was in NSW government offices on the 44th floor of Sydney's Grosvenor Tower. I was escorting my colleague to the venue in a crowded lift when I spotted someone I knew.

I introduced my visitor as a professor of computer science at Stanford University. My Australian colleague appeared impressed, but there was not a flicker of interest from any of the other people in the lift. I then mentioned that Ullman was one of the world's leading database theoreticians. A couple of people in the lift - possibly IT consultants - took more notice and glanced towards Ullman.

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I then added that Ullman was also the second most cited computer scientist in the world. This attracted some more attention. I finally added that one of Ullman's PhD students had dropped out and co-founded Google.

Suddenly it registered and everyone in the lift was looking at Ullman. He is a rare example of a researcher who has made a foundational contribution, whose work has received exceptional peer recognition and whose ideas have also had influence on the scale of Google.

In most cases, the link between peer recognition and wider impact is far less direct. As a hypothetical scenario, let us take the example of a group of theoretical physicists and a group of cultural theorists. Both groups do work that is abstract, elegant, intellectually satisfying, contributes to our understanding and is in all likelihood as far removed from everyday reality as possible.

But somehow the work of theoretical physicists, at least as perceived by the cultural theorists, has broader support from funding agencies and university administrators. If one digs deeper, one may find that the group of theoretical physicists is respected by a group, that is respected by another group, that is respected by people who make bombs and missiles.

The cultural theorists are also respected by a peer group, but there is perhaps no link to a wider group that is the equivalent of the makers of bombs and missiles.

Recognition by peers has served the academic research community well and it remains an essential component of the research evaluation process. But we are also living in changing times. The increasing cost of healthcare and other competing demands on the public purse mean that research, especially that funded by taxpayers, has increasingly to be relevant.

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Hence peer review, a necessary criterion of excellence, is no longer a sufficient criterion on its own. The relevance of the peer review group must also enter the equation. Research groups have a responsibility to make that link to wider impact; the equivalent of the makers of bombs and missiles.

It is no longer sufficient in today's climate - at least until the baby boomers have made their graceful exit through the system and as long as no other pressing need takes their place for the attention of the public purse - to say that one's research has impact purely because it is influencing the research of other researchers.

This can be important only if these other researchers have a link to end users with wider influence.

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First publlished in The Australian May 11, 2005.



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About the Author

Arun Sharma is deputy vice-chancellor (research and commercialisation) at Queensland University of Technology.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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