Thoughts on Research

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Mature students don’t come much greyer than me, but in one way at least I’m getting younger.

I thought that my formal university education had ended in 1979. I was a solid state physicist the first time around, and went on to spend most of my working life in materials processing R&D. Beyond my own research I commissioned and supervised a lot of other people’s, and I participated in numerous industrial steering committees and a few EPSRC Strategic Advisory Teams, so that university research was an almost daily preoccupation for the last twenty-five years of my working life.

All of that research was technical, of course. I was a respectable all-rounder at school, but I chose the sciences and then engineering because I wanted a lucrative and secure career. I didn’t in any sense look down on the arts; I just wanted to be well off, if at all possible. So when it recently came to be time to retire, I sought the opportunity to study some of the things I’d once been too risk-averse to consider.

At the start of the 2018-19 academic year, I enrolled on a part-time MA course at one of my home city’s universities. Its subject is Creative Writing. I chose that course because I wanted to stretch myself in a self-sufficient intellectual pursuit. I didn’t want to plunge into another research-dominated field. I had nothing left to learn, or so I thought, about research.

How wrong I was. I’ve now realised that research in English Literature is fundamentally different from research in Materials Science. I’m inclined to generalise, and say that the same fundamental differences divide all the arts from all the sciences. (Where the humanities fit is an interesting question, but here I’m going to stick to a basic thesis).

Scientific research intrinsically builds a single body of knowledge. If you complete a PhD, say, and you make the obligatory novel contribution, then it’s as if you add a brick to a huge and gradually-expanding edifice. There is an implicit simplification project too: a scientific description of the universe should be based on the fewest rules possible, and pretty well everyone active in science acknowledges this. The language of science is as exact and unequivocal as its users can make it, and this is most fully realised by founding the scientific discourse in mathematics wherever possible. Most important of all, the disciplines of the experimental method are universal.
Scientists can observe and often demonstrate what they must in turn explain, and they can test hypotheses by designing and conducting systematic experiments. The empirical and the theoretical go hand-in-hand, in a project committed to binding them together into an eventual complete understanding.

I started a Masters in an arts subject, and set out on the modest research that it would entail, without ever thinking whether these axioms of scientific research could apply to the writing of prose or poetry. Indeed I was so familiar and comfortable with scientific research methods that I assumed them to be an accepted ideal, so that other academic disciplines would always choose to apply them as fully as possible. (I already had a notion of incomplete adherence through my occasional encounters with life scientists. Those poor biologists are pretty constrained when it comes to performing experiments on living creatures, I recognised, but they still acknowledge the desirability of doing them, and they double down on some of the other principles, such as meticulous and forensic observation of the natural system, to compensate).

It only takes a little thought, though, to realise that most if not all of the axioms of scientific research are incoherent when applied to the arts. There is still an edifice of knowledge, but it isn’t constructed additively and there can be no sensible project to simplify it. Exact language is an anathema in an academic field that is stimulated by bending the rules of expression. Experimentation in the arts differs fundamentally from scientific experiment in terms of its objectives, and so also in its evaluation. Indeed the very question of the validity of a piece of research is different for artists. Scientific research is ultimately proved right or wrong (and in the latter case ceases to exist, except in an apocryphal compendium of mistakes that shouldn’t be repeated). In art, there isn’t really any right or wrong at all, except at an empathetic level that is inherently incapable of definition. Subjectivity trumps objectivity in the arts. Some of the very best of the arts completely defies what was gone before, and yet makes no claim to be a foundation for what will follow. The result is exciting but anarchic - and thoroughly confusing for an old-school scientific researcher.

I know now that I just struck lucky in choosing a course in which the research aspects are relatively secondary. This might give me sufficient time to learn new methods, because my habituated instincts are proving worse than useless at the moment. I had forgotten what incomprehension feels like. I have even been forcibly reminded of the etiquette of libraries (as places where you shouldn’t shout out loud in frustration).

If I had decided to go the riskier route forty years ago, and studied the arts instead, would I now be trying the sciences? I’m not sure for starters whether I’d be as well able to afford it (which is a sad state of affairs in my opinion). Science might have seemed too structured and constraining, or even just too boring. Some of the maths, hard enough to master in youth, might be too demanding for me now without the incentive (real or imagined) of building a toolkit that would stand me in good stead for life.

Whether an arts degree would have lead to an artistic career is a moot point in itself, of course. I might have turned out to be a marketing executive or even (god forbid) an accountant. And who am I to claim that my actual science degree led to a scientific career? There was very clearly more D than there was R in my working life. Engineering is pragmatic in its research, and tends to value translation over discovery. Academics are most often enlisted by industry to transfer knowledge, as much in a teaching role as a research one.

I think this essay is about the tip of an iceberg. I haven’t even described the base of the issue, only the small part that’s in plain sight. There is a lot more to be said about how research differs across disciplines, and probably a lot more to reveal about how those disciplines might help each other, based on their distinctive experience of the practice of research. There’s a lot to be said too about the relative value of researchers within the different disciplines. (Another line of enquiry might start with the premise that in science the researchers are the true practitioners, whereas in the arts it’s arguable that the true practitioners are often not academics at all).

The best part of my recent experience meanwhile is the eradication of a smug notion that I’m an expert in what constitutes research. I can see now that I was overdue for a shock. In fact, perhaps, there is a rule that applies to all research, regardless of academic field: if you’re doing real research, be prepared to be amazed, and to be forced to discard some part (perhaps a substantial part and it could be literally any part) of what you thought you knew. Research doesn’t respect experts, because its potential outcomes include the redefinition of expertise. The intellectual challenge is the thing, not some transient feeling of achievement at an arbitrary point of supposed completion. Those few bricks of mine seem a bit deliberate and mundane now. For a while at least, the pliability of language and an almost unbounded scope for originality are providing excitement of a kind I’d forgotten.

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