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“Useful” research often viewed with more suspicion

29 April 2011

Elin Bommenel is a senior lecturer at the Department of Service Management.

Research that isolates itself in the ivory tower may find it easier to gain the public’s confidence than interdisciplinary research that is more relevant to society. This is a consequence of the way in which research is assessed, in the view of Elin Bommenel, history of science scholar.

Elin Bommenel studies the conditions for interdisciplinary research and analyses how research gains legitimacy within and outside the research community.

For research to gain the confidence of the public it must demonstrate that it is credible within academia, claims Elin Bommenel. Research is reviewed through various peer review channels. These benefit established research fields which have managed to create many review channels that can confirm that their research is important and fulfils the requirements of the discipline for methodology and theoretical renewal.

“Such research also enjoys great confidence in society and has high integrity, but is not always perceived as having clear relevance to society”, says Elin Bommenel.

However, new interdisciplinary research fields often have obvious relevance to society. On the other hand, they have more difficulty being accepted within academia because they are somewhat removed from the mainstream in their defined and established ‘parent disciplines’.

Interdisciplinarity attempts to gain legitimacy through external, non-academic assessors. These attest that the research is important because it is needed in society. As a rule, politicians and other external commissioners think that interdisciplinary research is ‘sexy’ because it focuses on solving important, well-defined social problems. However, within academia there is distrust. This can spill over into the media and influence the attitude of the public, who may see the new, applied research as lacking in independence and ‘bought’.

“The criticism does not have to mean that commissioned research is not independent. However, criticism from within academia is a sure sign that research funding has been invested in new, interdisciplinary fields that do not have established channels for review, which could give them academic legitimacy.”

The result is that research which looks inwards and isolates itself in the ivory tower avoids being suspected by the research community and its measuring system. It may thus have less difficulty winning the public’s confidence than more exposed interdisciplinary research that has a clear focus on solving different social problems, says Elin Bommenel.

With the current assessment system, there is therefore a risk that those commissioning the research get to formulate the research questions and attest that the results are useful:

“On the one hand, there is a risk that the researchers are not seen as credible. On the other hand, the commissioners risk getting less useful results because the results are ‘dissed’ by the research community. In other words, it is a tough situation for interdisciplinary research and those funding it.”

- Britta Collberg