What’s my contribution to the GDP?

Monday and Tuesday I participated in the compulsory Theory of Science course. All PhD students at my university have to take the course and produce a paper on a topic related to Theory of Science and their own topic. I like the course and I like Theory of Science. We were discussing the book the “The New Production of Knowledge” by Helga Nowotny, Camille Limoges, Simon Schwartzman, Martin Trow and Peter Scott. The authors claim that there are two modes of acquiring knowledge, the first one is the one going on in the traditional institutions among academics not interdisciplinary and only achievable for a few. The second mode is the one that has moved out of universities with research teams that are interdisciplinary and that also consists of people both with and without academic background. These teams are loosely set together to answer specific questions under a limited period of time.
Personally, I did not like the division into two modes (first of all because the authors made it sound as the OLD used-out mode and the NEW fresh appropriate mode), I would prefer to see it as a continuum, there are research going on at the university, and that research can be both within a single discipline and interdisciplinary, it can have a time limit or it can be very long term. And then there is research going on outside the university in different constellations.
But the most problematic issue for me here is what this tells us about funding. A lot of the important basic research goes on at universities, and most of that research may not be so very “salable” when it comes to getting funding. It’s more attractive to fund a a mode 2 team where you can commission the team to research a particular issue you are interested in (which may be a highly important issue of course such as climate change nowadays) for a set period of time.
I once interpreted Linda Buck (Nobel prize laureate for medicine in 2004), it was a public lecture so I’m not breaking any secrecy here. Her work on the olfactory system was very much unsexy basic research that was hard to get funding for and that didn’t interest many people. She spent many years looking into mouse brains to see how the odors are detected in the nose and interpreted in the brain. She did not say it, but I guess she more than once got the question: “And what’s the good use of that?”. And then something happened and her research has allowed for the DNA-mapping of the olfactory system and she has discovered how the odour travels into the brain and apparently this can open all sorts of doors for the medicine industry. But what if she had been in a mode 2 team? And after four years of studying mouse brain nothing interesting had come up, no answers ready. Of course I do believe that we need both mode 1 and mode 2 research, my problem is that I do not want research to be done only in mode 2.
I mean honestly, what’s my contribution to the GDP? I do not find cures to diseases, I do not stop the climate change, I do not invent new renewable energy sources, I do not even come up with new economic models to make more money. So where is my right to existence in a research world dominated by market economy? I’m not alone in this dilemma, many researchers within Humanities struggle with the same questions. But nevertheless our science is important science too. We all contribute to a better understanding of the world around us, an understanding of those who came before us and documentation to those who will follow. Our community needs us, so we need to be part of the funding too, even if we are not producing immediate results in short term projects. Rome was not built in a day.

Update Jan 21st: I just noticed that the Overworked Translator had a blog post touching this topic, I like to believe that I’m more of a winner than a whiner, although I admit that this post touches upon whining.


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