Is there any point to ‘frivolous’ academic research?

If you sit monkeys at a computer, will they type the works of the Bard? No, they will partially destroy the machine, use it as a lavatory and mostly type the letter “s”. It took university researchers one month and £2,000 of Arts Council England money to find this out.
Changes are now being proposed for how public money is awarded for university research. In future funding for researchers might be assessed in part on the impact their work has had in social, economic and cultural terms.
There are reports that if such changes are introduced it could put an end to seemingly trivial research projects – which often make great headlines in the newspapers but seem to have little, if any, intellectual rigour. But is this fair? Are populist papers just a waste of time?


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While there is plenty of sniffiness about headline-grabbing research stunts in the fusty corridors of academe, there are many willing to defend this type of work. The findings seized on by the media – often with the help of sharp-minded university publicity folk – are often not the aim of research, just a by-product of it, say those in the field. An academic’s life work will not solely be about finding the formula for the perfect cheese sarnie.
“These more trivial findings often come out of long-term work on much more serious stuff,” says Paul Cotrell, of the University College Union.
“Or a professor might do something frivolous to promote a university in the media or the course they teach. It’s a brilliant way of getting headlines, but they are not being employed just to find out the formula for the perfect cheese sandwich.”
This formula, which all comes down to the thickness of the type of cheese you are using, was in fact funded by the British Cheese Council, and carried out by Dr Len Fisher at Bristol University. He had previously researched the issue of the perfect way to dunk a biscuit.
“Often industry funds this type of stuff,” says a spokesman for the Science Media Centre, which promotes science in the news. “It usually doesn’t involve much time on the part of the academic but earns them money and gets their name and university in the paper.”
Silly science
For many academics, research is the most prized part of their job – a chance to broaden their knowledge in the hope it will lead to breakthroughs in understanding and contribute to the wider intellectual discourse. While populist research papers can make a splash in the news, its in academic journals and books that their work is evaluated by peers.
While it may be a mysterious world to those on the outside, in one way it operates like most other industries – it is highly competitive. A key to career progression is the “impact factor” and getting published and your name known.
“A high impact factor is important because it means more kudos and respect within the research world, which can translate into more funding for other work,” says the centre’s spokesman.

Celebrity does not further careers in academic research, excellent research does
Paul Cotrell
University College Union
Such studies also get “unsexy” subjects like science in the media, making it accessible to the man in the street.
“The sillier aspect of science is often publicised and that does have benefits,” says Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK.
“But most of the work that is done is serious and about advancing knowledge. That needs to be covered by the media as well. There is a place for both.”
Reputation needs to be carefully managed though, as being too populist can lead to prejudice and handicap someone’s career.
“Celebrity does not further careers in academic research, excellent work does,” says Mr Cotrell.
Missed message
In 2003, the papers were full of reports of a formula for the “perfect slice of toast”.
The man behind the research, Bronek Wedzicha, a food scientist at Leeds University, appeared on news bulletins in the UK and abroad, explaining the optimum temperatures of bread and butter for the tastiest toast.
“The equation, which was spurious, captured the imagination but we didn’t get the flavour-release message across. It was aimed at the food industry and scientists working in flavour science and people who are formulating food and trying to work out what properties they need.

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“What we had done with butter applied more widely to food formulations, the way flavours are released and flavours absorbed by bread or other foods like potatoes.”
Butter manufacturer Lurpak wanted some publicity and funded the research to the tune of £10,000 – half of it funded the toast research, half went to the university to fund projects like student scholarships.
“We wouldn’t work exclusively to do PR, we have to have an economic return, which in this case was a greater understanding of flavour release mechanism,” says Professor Wedzicha. “We got £10,000 and Lurpak got some very good PR out of it.”
For about two years, academics have had to demonstrate the impact of research, he says. But it’s very easy to make a joke out of food stories because everyone thinks they know about food and it’s very easy to rubbish the science.

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