Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why I do what I do...

Years ago at an international conference, when I was still a rookie postgrad, I was advised by two kindly and experienced academics (one from Singapore, one from Australia) over some badly-cooked Chinese dishes (I shall never forget how we happened to trudge for miles chatting away in search of a decent restaurant in a foreign town that none of us knew our way around, and in the end settled for one of the worst dives in the local Chinatown, for by then we were completely lost and had succumbed to the twin fears of potential mugging at night fall and not having the energy to make it back to our hotels alive) that I should stay in academia. At the time I was all idealistic and wanted my research to have "real world impact" and didn't want to remain in the ivory tower, and said that my plan (how naively optimistic I was that I believe in plans for the future) was to go for a policy research position in government, and that it was in fact seeing such advertisements in the papers that instigated my wish to give up my corporate job and opt to do doctoral work.

But those kindly academics smiled at me, and said that I was being too naive about the role that I could play if I were to work in government. That I have totally underestimated how public policy agenda is very much influenced by the vagaries of political expediency and that, as a researcher working inside government, I will no longer have the freedom to set my own research agenda and have to work to politicians' whimsy and whatever media-generated crisis of the day. Moreover, there is no guarantee that even a meaningful piece of research will be used to formulate relevant policies, as much of the latter is driven by soundbite political rhetorics with little to no relation to the actual evidence-base. Instead, I was told that only in academia, protected by the walls of ivory tower, would I have a modicum of freedom to pursue research for research's sake without undue influence from politicians and their ilk.

It was certainly a dinner that was memorable not because of the sub-standard food, but for the amiable and easy-going company of my betters and the invaluable advice I have been kindly given by them. Their words stay with me to this day and offer me encouragement whenever I feel disillusioned by the politics of academe.

I still want my research to have "real world impact", but I have indeed come to realise that this is much easier done when one is positioned within academia and working directly with organisations and societal stakeholders than as a lowly researcher within the ranks of the civil service with questionable objectivity and indeed, credibility. Yes, one would have to chase for research funding, of course, but that helps rather than hinders the goal of achieving real world impact, for the chances of succeeding in these grant applications depend on both intellectual rigour (through the international peer review process) as well as demonstrable social gain, at least in my particular field of applied research. (Of course, the same mechanism of research support has detrimental effects where pure research is concerned, but that is another post for another day).

As the climate for university funding becomes increasingly unfavourable as a result of severe government budgetary constraints, commissioned research through the private and non-profit sectors, as well as self-financing programmes that sustain lecturers' salaries, are becoming comparatively important. Relations with existing funders and links with industry and civil society organisations, many of which stem from one's lecturing career (whether it was from having members of these organisations in one's class, or because of sector initiatives that were off-shoots of one's academic role), are just as crucial for furthering one's academic career as one's own research track record, although the bar for the latter has also consistently been raised as well over the past number of years. Aligning oneself with one's peers in other disciplines and other institutions in pursuit of interdisciplinary research, an objective that I have fought for since the very beginning of my academic career (I was the "test case" for inter-departmental supervisory support), is finally being recognised not as empty words in a strategy document but as actual programmes tied with real grant money. I am extremely grateful for the fact that, just as the funding environment turns increasingly hostile, the kind of projects that still stands a chance of being considered for funding is the kind that I have been doing for the last number of years -- in fact, I was one of the first in Ireland to do so. I need to believe in myself and conclude this work in order that I could finally position myself to take advantage of all these encouraging signs and move on to the next stage of work -- not only to contribute knowledge to society, but hopefully in the process bring on board other researchers, regardless of vintage or discipline, to take advantage of the immense intellectual opportunities offered in a field that is quietly but rapidly converging but few have yet recognised the trend for what it is.

So help me God.

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