Blog 10: The importance of research

Many issues discussed in Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives suggest a need for legal remedies, such as the case of monopoly power in digital technology industries.  Other issues raise ethical quandaries, such as the cases of employees of such firms who find actions of their employers immoral.  In almost all cases, such as technology addiction, fake news, and unjust algorithms, wise legal actions and informed moral choices depend upon having good information about what, how, and why things are happening.  This requires research.  In an excerpt from his excellent recent book The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations, published by Oxford University Press, Emeritus Prof. Ben Shneiderman suggests that what is needed is applied research illuminating context and situations coupled with basic research illuminating causes.

“U.S. President Thomas Jefferson’s masterful mission statement to Meriwether Lewis was a brilliant example of combining an applied research goal with basic research questions. Jefferson wrote that the “object of your mission is to explore” and find “the most direct & practicable water communication across the continent, for the purpose of commerce.” At the same time, Jefferson instructed Lewis to make geographic, geological, astronomical, biological, meteorological, and other observations to add to basic natural science knowledge. Jefferson also detailed the social science research agenda for encounters with American Indian nations, requiring Lewis to record the languages, traditions, laws, customs, and religion. Jefferson’s eagerness to learn about the tribes extended to their agricultural practices, as well as to their hunting and fishing implements. He believed that there was much to learn from how the American Indian nations made clothing, built housing, and treated disease.

The Lewis and Clark expedition (1804–1806) was a remarkable human drama of how the 33-member Corps of Discovery paddled and portaged up the Missouri River, crossed treacherous, snow-covered trails through the Rocky Mountains, traveled down the Columbia River to the Pacific, and then returned safely, having achieved many of the goals set for them. They were aided by the young Shoshone American Indian woman, Sacajawea, who accompanied them with her baby while acting as an interpreter and liaison with indigenous tribes. Their teamwork triumph, tarnished by a future of tragic encounters with American Indian tribes, helped expand commerce while advancing research, thereby creating a national sensation.

More than a century and a half later, John F. Kennedy, dealing with Cold War political realities, challenged NASA “to go to the moon in this decade” by engaging in “the greatest and most complex exploration in man’s history.” Kennedy focused on how “the growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.” While Kennedy expected research contributions, he was well aware of the international excitement and broad growth of interest in science, engineering, and design that the moon landings would produce.

What is striking about Jefferson’s and Kennedy’s challenges is how they instinctively tied applied research goals to basic research pursuits, with the expectation that this combination would have high payoffs in business while stimulating further efforts in science, engineering, and design. These visionary leaders believed that challenging applications and basic research went well together, stimulating progress toward both goals.

However, these presidents’ beliefs in synergistic interaction between applied and basic research are not universally held. There are strong voices from those who believe that curiosity-driven basic research deserves special support free of linkage to mission-driven applied research. This suggestion of the primacy of basic research has shaped research policy, government funding, educational programs, and more.

Similarly, some applied researchers differ with the presidents’ encouragement to combine applied and basic goals. These applied researchers are content to solve their specific problems, without thinking about the theories that could lead to universal principles with widespread adoption.

While there are clear differences between the methods of applied and basic research, the ABC principle (Applied and Basic Combined) is based on the belief that projects that pursue both applied and basic goals have a higher chance of producing more dramatic advances in both arenas. The ABC principle is aligned with the growing ambitions of researchers and the increased appreciation for innovations that address contemporary problems. The case studies in this book show diverse approaches that provide inspirational templates for combining applied and basic research.

While national challenges such as going to the moon or building the first atomic bomb required massive teamwork (in the form of Project Apollo and the Manhattan Project, respectively), many smaller contemporary research projects could be improved by combining diverse researchers in large teams. In some communities there is a growing appreciation for teamwork, and improved collaboration tools are boosting the capabilities of research teams. These larger teams are more likely to take on more ambitious projects than smaller teams are, pursuing applied and basic tasks simultaneously. This increased ambition does not always make for an easy path. Setbacks and failures will still be the common experience for researchers, but effective processes can produce resilient teams. In spite of difficulties, the evidence is growing that larger teams are likely to produce higher-impact results than smaller teams are.

The first guiding principle for researchers is that, when teams take on applied and basic research goals, they are more likely to produce stronger applied and basic outcomes than when they focus on only applied or only basic research. Support for this idea is captured by the inside-the-Beltway quip that “think tanks need to become do tanks.” The evidence grows that synergy, rather than a battle for primacy, is more often the winning strategy.

My goal in promoting the ABC principle is more than improving research team productivity. I seek to provoke ambitious research projects that will more frequently cope with contemporary problems such as energy sustainability, healthcare delivery, community safety, and environmental protection. These and other complex challenges require foundational science theories, innovative technology breakthroughs, and compelling designs that together will produce prosocial change for billions of people. At the same time, these new directions will provoke paradigm-shifting basic research in science, engineering, and design. The rising tide of higher ambitions lifts all disciplines.

Building more bridges among academic, business, and government communities could bring the capabilities of academic researchers into close contact with business practitioners and government agency staffers who often face meaningful societal problems. Academics are in touch with recent research and thrive on trying something entirely new. Business practitioners can be remarkably effective in turning pilot project prototypes into scalable successes that serve genuine social needs while ensuring economic viability. When academic researchers collaborate with practitioner partners, it means the choice of problems is informed by civic, business, and global priorities. It also means that theories can be validated through living laboratories and that technology and innovation transfer, sometimes called translation, is facilitated so that transformative solutions can be applied more rapidly and more successfully.”

FOR THINKING AND DISCUSSION

What questions related to the social impact of digital technologies pose important research questions? 

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