Monday, 27 February 2012

Useless Research

The world of academics baffles me. I consider myself reasonably aware of business issues and yet I can't make any sense of most of the research publications that come out on business. Actually I can't make any sense of even the title - let alone the contents. I challenge you to figure out "Tabu Search for the Single Row Facility Layout Problem in FMS using a 3-opt Neighborhood" or " On the Blowout Preventer Testing Problem: An Approach to Checking for Leakage in BOP Networks". Yes, I know, I am a bit dense, but still ........

So it was with delight that I discovered the Ig Nobel Prize - given annually to what is euphemistically called "Improbable Research". 2011winners were

PHYSIOLOGY PRIZE : Anna Wilkinson (of the UK), Natalie Sebanz (of THE NETHERLANDS, HUNGARY, and AUSTRIA), Isabella Mandl (of AUSTRIA) and Ludwig Huber (of AUSTRIA) for their study "No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise."

CHEMISTRY PRIZE : Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami of JAPAN, for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.

MEDICINE PRIZE : Mirjam Tuk (of THE NETHERLANDS and the UK), Debra Trampe (of THE NETHERLANDS) and Luk Warlop (of BELGIUM). and jointly to Matthew Lewis, Peter Snyder and Robert Feldman (of the USA), Robert Pietrzak, David Darby, and Paul Maruff (of AUSTRALIA) for demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things — but worse decisions about other kinds of things‚ when they have a strong urge to urinate.

PSYCHOLOGY PRIZE : Karl Halvor Teigen of the University of Oslo, NORWAY, for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh.

LITERATURE PRIZE : John Perry of Stanford University, USA, for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which says: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that's even more important. 

BIOLOGY PRIZE : Darryl Gwynne (of CANADA and AUSTRALIA and the UK and the USA) and David Rentz (of AUSTRALIA and the USA) for discovering that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle

PHYSICS PRIZE : Philippe Perrin, Cyril Perrot, Dominique Deviterne and Bruno Ragaru (of FRANCE), and Herman Kingma (of THE NETHERLANDS), for determining why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don't.

PEACE PRIZE : Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, LITHUANIA, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.

There is a Distinguished Academic amongts the "legions" of readers of this blog. Perhaps she would like to offer a rebuttal !!


  1. Made me smile and then think--true Ignoble style :) Especially the nudist research library :) (yeah it exists)

  2. LOL!! Why did I not think of these ideas???? Maybe there is a yellow-footed tortoise with contagious yawning..... stuff of my dreams :)

    Ok - I take the bait! In defense of academics.... I think we realize that we are such poor judges of good ideas that may be totally off-the-wall (not just in academics). Further, when the objective of academics is to push the boundaries of our thinking, the cost of squashing a brilliant thought prematurely is is perceived to be so high that we have to allow for crazy stuff out there. (Thank God for that!). You would have probably written a similar blog against those who said that the earth was round if you had been around in ancient Greece ;) Maybe the wasabi alarm will be a life-saver for hearing-impaired people someday!

    Hey! that's the beauty of academics - you don't have to justify the immediate applicability of your ideas to a crazy boss - and haven't we all had our share of crazy bosses who cant seem to see our "brilliance" ;) Though the grant writing process does impose some discipline in some fields.

  3. last one..peiece noblea?

  4. LOL prizes for trying to understand why ppl sigh!!! I'd love to read what they really understood and what made them research...ridiculously funny..gr8 post!

  5. @Preeti - Ha Ha

    @Gilsu - Yessir !

    @Rads - Sigh :):)

    @J - Spirited and classy defence. Yeah the freedom to innovate is what brings breakthrough inventions and the degrees of freedom that academicians enjoy is refreshing. No boss to be looking over your shoulder all the time. But even by those standards, wasabi alarm seems to be a stretch :):)

  6. If this were four years back, I would have stood by you, as I was equally baffled by the uselessness of research, if not more. But, today, I stand by J. IMHO, Research is about making a little progress, no matter how insignificant. No invention/discovery was a single man (team) effort. In Newton's times, how important was gravity? I don't think there was any immediate use. But, don't we all see how his theory has been taken forward by so many of his successors into understanding the mysteries of the universe (over how many decades?)? With what I see around me, everyone begins their research with an idea. A different problem arises in the course of the study, finally, their results culminate in a totally different domain. Yet, the fire of their first problem keeps burning within. Maybe, the wasabi alarm was one such. Might be the team was working on some project that is related to the olfactory (I have always wondered when we can see and hear via internet, it will not be long when we can smell, feel the touch etc too), Maybe, the Wasabi alarm was an intermediate result?? Then again, maybe.....I am sure the other results also will have a progress in a direction we might not foresee at the moment.

    All said, I don't agree with the concept of patenting, not atleast now (May be a light will shine sometime in the future to help me understand its positive side too). I feel that research results must be freely available to help others pursue along in the direction.

    I disagree the uselessness of research, although to be honest, there are a few jokers around. We like to intimidate people with our titles (like the ones you have mentioned). How else can we keep away from people who mock us about the immediate usefulness of our work?

    PS: Sorry about the long comment. Although I feel the urge to defend strongly, I am afraid it will be another post by itself. So, I stop here.

  7. LOL!!!! Didnt know such a thing existed until I read your post.
    Honouring achievements that make you 'laugh' and then 'think' they say.
    Gotto get over the laughing stage right now, to think about it!
    Sounds crazy and what a waste of resources and time, but there seems to be some defense too...

  8. @RS - An equally classy rebuttal from another distinguished academic. Honoured to have one from the Far West and one from the Far East rising in defence.

    Agree with most of what you say. Yes, research leads us in strange directions and its that freedom which liberates mankind into making astonishing discoveries. But at least in the field of an applied science such as management, there is so much drivel that I am continuing to state that Ig Nobel aspirants outnumber the real variety !!

    @Hema - Defence accepted, but with a slight pinch of salt :)

  9. To add to what J and RS said: I'm part of a research and pathfinding team since the last few years. Our first great project got canned - royally. But the lessons we learnt were invaluable. Sometimes, what not to do is as important as what to do. Sometimes, the work we do is frustrating. You don't get answers easily, you can't google them, you reach bottlenecks, but just like Moore's law, we keep progressing, and architecting new technologies.

    Our group (which is huge) does not generate any revenue for the company. But pretty much all the features that you eventually see in products come from us. I think more projects get canned than the ones that succeed. But, research is important.

    On the other hand, I see many students doing Ph.D and getting their degrees just for the sake for it (especially in engineering). There is no true innovation or invention to be found. I find it pathetic!

    Now, to sound dumb - had not heard of these awards either :). Hilarious post and lovely comments!

  10. @Shachi - Wow a third rebuttal. For one moment I am not trying to denigrate research. Without that (and the research spending), we might as well be in the Stone Ages. In fact I believe one of the backward steps that mankind has taken over history is the downfall of state spending on research. In the past kings and queens patronised research scholars - almost all of mankind's breakthrough innovations have come that way.

    But much of research published tends to be crap. Because of the pressure on academics to publish, they publish stuff eminently worthy of the Ig Nobel prize !

  11. Funny funny! I'd put my money on the wasabi alarm! It's the next big thing I am telling you! How did no one think of it before! Biological warfare to fight a formidable enemy- the cozy quilt!

  12. Hey! Why are we singling out b-school research to dump on. I posted a second comment specifically in support of b-school research but it seems to have disappeared so I will take it as a sign ;)

  13. I think there are two very different issues that your respondents are commenting on. First - most things in life have to pass the common-sense test. Clearly, research to show that wasabi can kill at 50 paces is not part of common sense. One can only assume that the people who start off to publish stuff like this do so with an eye on the IgNoble. There is a lot of research that is published by little known journals by people trying to get their PHDs out to tick a box - I know of one such institute in India that for many years studied the cockroach in detail to help their students get familiar with the tools of research. These papers deserve to sink into oblivion but if they helped train minds, then they have been worth it.

    And then there is the larger issue of immediate relevance. This is always not so apparent, and sometimes an atmosphere that encourages a playful mind to experiment often produces startling results. I am not sure how many of your readers know that Bell Labs was such an environment, and ended up producing eleven Nobel prizes in diverse fields. In fact the desire to have a congenial computing environment to play a game called Space Travel lead Thompson, Ritchie, Ossanna, and Canaday to create a new version of a dead operating system called MULTICS and called it UNIX on an old PDP-7, and to help improve it UNIX, Kernighan and Ritchie ended up inventing a new language called C. Every single Apple device and most computing servers run on an operating system derived from that initial effort (be it iOS, Linux, Solaris, or what have you). It sometimes helps to let people play.

    A larger subject is how big changes in scientific thought happen, especially when a piece of thinking comes along that appears to be disruptive. Another thinker called Thomas Kuhn pondered over this in a remarkable book called "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". In this book, Kuhn argues that science does not progress in a linear accumulation of knowledge, but takes place in bursts called “paradigm shifts”. In fact the usage of that term today is because of its use by Kuhn. He argues that there is a stage in science called pre-science in which a particular problem is exposed. Next there is a stage of “puzzle-solving” in which scientists attempt to resolve open questions that arise in the pre-science phase. This is when science is most productive.

    And then comes along a few results that do not seem to fit into the results predicted by normal science. At this stage these inconsistencies are either put down to experimental error or researcher error. A very good instance of this, obviously well known to Indians, is the public rubbishing of the theory of Black Holes first proposed by Subramanian Chandrasekhar by Sir Arthur Eddington at a conference in London in 1937. (He left in disgust for America and ultimately got his Nobel much much later for the same work). These anomalous results build up, and then there is a revolution (as much lead by a scientific personality as by sheer evidence) that results in a revolutionary change in thought, and in new theories.

    Sorry for the long response.

  14. @Deepa - Czy quilt to win anyday :)

    @J - Hey; no idea what happened to your comment. It didn't find its way to the spam folder - as if stupid spam detector can ever do that your wise comments.

    I know I shouldn't pick on B-school research. We shall stay with poking fun at the wasabi alarm :)

    @Dada - Extremely incisive comment. Can't but agree. Now can I tempt you to write more regularly ..... in your blog I mean.

  15. Extremely funny stuff but they made me "think" just the way these prizes are defined. I am totally for Shachi's comment on this. Beyond these awards, research is of paramount importance though some of them may be crazy at times...

    Reminds me of the cliche of an engineer doing investment banker's job... don't know what value engineering adds to that job in terms of innovation... :)

  16. Loved Ravi's very insightful comments. In fact my comment that disappeared on B-school research is I think related to his first argument so I will repeat it and challenge your spam folder again :)

    I acknowledge that the "paradigm shifts" caused by research in b-schools are relatively fewer compared with sciences and in some cases like structured finance, the benefits to the economy at large are even possibly questionable. However, one big contribution of research is forcing discipline in the thought process of faculty and I believe that research active faculty (at least in the US) do a much better job of forcing their students to think and encourage intellectual curiosity and critical thinking. In fact the students do acknowledge that many times classes taught by those with primarily industry experience end up being a string of war stories from their personal experiences. Of course, this is a generalization... I think the rigorous peer review and publishing process (of even the "drivel") serves as a certification of at least the process, if not always the idea, and that the research-active faculty's brain is not (yet) fossilized! (I don't mean to sound defensive in case it comes across that way.)

  17. sandhya1/3/12

    Wow this is the best ever repartee i have seen on your blog. Amazing. A research paper in itself. I can maybe give this blog and its commenters an ignoble prize for advanced research in human reactions to provocation caused by extremely intense sense of humour coupled with unbeatable powers of the cerebellum.

  18. Loved Ravi's comments!

  19. @Vishal - An engineer is usually brilliant and mathematical. Investment banking requires exactly those qualities and pays very well. Voila - perfect fit.

    @J - The insight of how students perceive faculty with purely industry experience and faculty with research interests is superb. I had really not thought it that way, but now that you say it , I can see the merit. I had always criticised Indian elite B schools for not welcoming faculty from industry, but perhaps there is a method to their madness.

    @Sandhya - Touche.

    @Shachi - He is truly an incredibly well read and knowledgeable man capable of writing beautifully. But the lazy bum refuses to blog :(

  20. I was all set to post a ROFL seriously???? but am I glad I went thru ur comment section. Comments by J, RS, Ravi and Shachi offered new perspective:-).

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record I repeat....ur blog is Novel, Different and ORIGINAL:-)).

  21. @Reflections - Oh - you are being very kind.

  22. Hmmm .... a decade ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published my commentary on the crazy "business" of academic research and publications. I will dig it up and email it you ... there is a fair chance that you will not disagree with the observations there :)

  23. @sriram - Look forward to reading your piece.


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