For some years now, as the end of my PhD drew near and my postdoctoral work began to unfold, I have felt anxious about committing my life to research. It’s an anxiety that lurks in the back of my mind: it lets me be while I go through my daily routine, but when I sit back and pause to reflect, it crawls out of its hole and demands my full attention: it asks whether what I do is worth it; whether “software engineering research” is really my best answer to that intimidating, sometimes paralyzing question: knowing what you know about the state the world is in, what will you do with your life?
Some recent posts by Jon Pipitone, as well as some personal developments in my life, finally forced me to try and tease out what is it that bugs me about a life of research, and what can I do about it. I think the source of the problem is that research, for the most part, is understood as a value-neutral activity. Or rather, that research is assumed to be valuable naturally, for its own sake. Generalizing: research, if it goes as it should, leads to “progress,” and we take it for granted that progress is a good thing—therefore, research is also inherently a good thing. But these assumptions are questionable.
First, not all research agendas lead to progress. Of course, it is the nature of research that we never quite know at the start whether a particular avenue of exploration will prove productive or not, and therefore many research projects come up empty-handed, and we should be OK with that. But when I say that research does not necessarily lead to progress I’m not talking about that; I’m talking about research that we know (or should know, if we didn’t purposefully keep a veil over our eyes) that it’s not going anywhere. Every field is different, and I can’t risk a guess about the value to society of most medical, physical, or psychological research. But I can analyze my own field, and when I do I conclude that we don’t yet have much to show to our society for the privilege of doing research.
Now and then, the argument goes, a genuinely useful idea sparks, and it makes all the other effort worthwhile: we achieve progress. On this, again, I’m not convinced. “Progress” has undeniably given us many wonderful things, but it also seems to be bringing us to the brink of collapse—our society more and more like a Jenga tower, reaching higher every turn but also becoming more unstable, until we reach the inevitable point where the tiles all fall to the ground. Thinking about progress invariably reminds me of that Walter Benjamin quote that I posted a few years ago:
“A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
We are taught to see our research as a tool: not good or bad in itself; its ethics lie in the way our society decides to use it. When you research something seemingly good and worthy, you might be also unwittingly hurting our civilization, and viceversa: war research and weapon development, we are often reminded, have been the source of many improvements to modern life. So why bother? In sum: we are merely the builders of this tool called research, and it is not our job to question it.
This is what I mean when I say that research is for the most part value-neutral (and please note, again, that I speak only with knowledge of my own domain). Generally speaking, we don’t care where the money for our research comes from, we don’t care who benefits from it directly, and we don’t care how its results can be misappropriated to the detriment of society, as long as we get to tackle our (perhaps socially worthless) research questions. We act as if it were not our position to question these things—it is convenient to not have to think about who are we helping or hurting from the comfort of our desks, labs, and podiums. Our discussion of “research ethics” is usually far more superficial than these considerations: it focuses on protecting participants from risk, on consent, on avoiding plagiarism. Which are all important issues, of course, but ethics is far more than that, and unfortunately “dealing with ethics” in the university environment has simply become synonymous with “convincing the review board that we won’t harm our participants.” Even the deeper treatments of research ethics that I’ve found have unsatisfactory results—see for instance the ethical contortions, here, to justify a collaboration with a tobacco think tank. (If you know of good discussions of research ethics, please share them in the comments.)
This neutrality, this abstraction from the very direct consequences that our research could or should have, stands in my mind in stark contrast to the ills that plague the world and demand urgent attention. We stand by a social and economic system of abuse and growing inequality; we witness the rise to power of the corporation; most importantly, we know very well that we approach a climate catastrophe of our own creation, and a depletion of the most basic resources holding our civilization together. When I remember all of this, when this anxiety takes hold of me, going back to the question of whether ‘foo’ is better than ‘bar’ for some kind of software development project seems either stupid or criminally complicit.
What is there to do? I think that a deeper commitment to bring these ethical issues into our research should lead us, at least, to do four things: (1) to be more discriminating with our sources of funding and more aware of the patterns we encourage when we accept money from bodies whose values we disagree with; (2) to say “no” to contributing with those organizations that pursue values that are in opposition to ours (in my case, those that thrive on the exploitation of natural resources or labour, on violence or oppression, as well as those that actively oppose sustainability, equality, welfare, or diversity); (3) to actively seek out and collaborate with those organizations that pursue values in harmony to ours; and (4) to honestly reflect on whether our research projects are truly the best use of our abilities for the greater good, considering the many ways in which the world needs unscrewing, and to switch activities if we find that to be the honourable thing to do.
This sounds great in theory, but it’s quite hard to do in practice. My big unresolved questions at this point are: what does this mean for a junior researcher? And specifically, what does this mean in my domain? Can we actually pull this off—this researcher/activist combination? If so, how does “pulling this off” look like? I know that in some disciplines people have managed to achieve a research-activist balance, but despite the examples that Jon dug up I still have a hard time figuring out how to make this work for my skills and abilities, and in a domain that, to all appearances, does not care (and does not encourage care) about these issues. I also know that there are senior researchers in my community that are making it work—Steve Easterbrook, my PhD advisor, being an example I’m particularly proud of. But he has tenure, and I don’t; instead I have a pressure to prove myself as a researcher, to publish (it doesn’t matter what, as long as it’s in big venues), and to develop corporate connections, before my funding runs out in a couple of years and I’m forced to jump to the next treadmill.
I think I’m partly writing this down to keep myself honest and avoid becoming complacent: I fear in time it’ll be easy to just give in to the routine. But I’m also partly writing it to ask around: do you feel or have you felt the same way? How do you cope, or how have you made it work? How should I approach this problem?