Thursday, May 13, 2010


A blog posting day today. This one has been swirling in my mind for a while actually.

Robert O'callahan (Mozilla) gave a talk at Vic recently (blog link), in essence, on the impact of one's work in the world. I missed the talk, but read the slides and had a chat with Rob about this, and it got me thinking. A lot.

What impact does my work have? Well as a theoretical researcher, I'm used to the answer being none. And I've been pretty comfortable with that, I get satisfaction from the intellectual challenge, rather than the real-world impact. If one of my ideas trickles down into something useful one day, then that is a bonus.

But, thinking about this a bit more, impact is like risk - it's a two dimensional idea, in the case of impact, there is magnitude (how many people, how much you impact each person) and 'positivity' (I can't think of a better name, I mean how positive the effect is). I've always thought in terms of magnitude, implicitly assuming I would be making things better, not worse (no intention of doing research for the military, for example). But I think it is important to think in terms of both - one should strive to make one's impact better, as well as bigger.

Not sure what any of this means in practical terms, but it is a musing in the spirit of the blog's name.


Rob (not O'Callahan) said...

My two feathers' worth:

'Impact' is a word with overtones of power, instantaneous effect, collision, even destruction ('impact crater', 'impacted teeth'). It's a very macho word. Different metaphors could be taken from biology ('how nutritious is my research for the growth of the body of knowledge?') or civil engineering ('will my research become foundational, or is it another brick in the wall?').

Using such a word is not value free and affects how we regard our own work, even the timescale over which we regard it.

'Impact' is a term that came into favour when the culture of business managerialism came to dominate research stategy and above all research funding. In my view, it is not at all clear that a researcher aiming for 'high impact' will do better research*, although they might better meet short-term targets set by managers. Unfortunately that may have the long term effect of leaving an important task - problem selection as O'Callahan noted - to the managers.

As for the futility of trying to quantify impact, the papers by David Colquhoun at UCL and Peter Lawrence of the University of Cambridge are thought provoking. Although they are written from the point of view of the management of scientists, I think there is plenty of food for thought for individual researchers.

The 'moral quality' angle is interesting but hard. There are too many contradictions: the same software improvement might equally well improve robotic surgery and the accuracy of cruise missiles. Is there maybe even something of 'complexity' about it: perhaps the moral quality of research is an emergent property?

* I haven't read John Kay's new book yet, but I suspect research is a good example of where obliquity is relevant

Rob (not O'Callahan) said...

Of course, I was thinking about academic research in my comment above. Commercial research (whether in-house or farmed out to universities) is a different kettle of fish.