Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What IS Research?

Welcome to UNC Charlotte’s research communications blog! We’re just starting, and that means that the entries here are, well… a work in progress. As active readers on the web, we have noticed that blogs are like children, puppies and scientific research programs – they need to develop naturally and a little informally. Like a lab proceedure that needs to react to incoming data, sometimes blog projects fail if you expect them to follow a rigid plan. In other words, this is an experiment with no expected outcome except, um… to show you something cool that none of us knew about before.

Sometimes, discovery is messy.

I’m Jim Hathaway, and I’m a long-time science writer who happens to direct research communication at UNC Charlotte. You will be hearing from me from time to time on this blog, but, with any luck, you will be hearing more from people who are even deeper in the trenches of science and technology at UNC Charlotte than I am. Among these others, you will definitely be reading posts from Christina Kaemmerlen and Brent Metcalfe, student reporters who work in my office, ferreting out science and technology stories on campus. They are writers, but they are also simultaneously engaged in university research in their academic lives, which makes their voices probably more interesting than mine.

Black-footed ferrets, an endangered species. Brent and Christina are not endangered. Photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation.

Beyond the three of us, we also hope to have regular guest blogs from UNC Charlotte faculty and other students who are actively engaged in their fields. As a university, we are already blessed with several active bloggers (see the blog roll on this page) and there is certainly room for more. (Yes, UNC Charlotte community, this is an invitation! -- If you are a faculty or graduate student researcher and want to show off  your work, email me at jbhathaw@uncc.edu and we will get you on the schedule!)

Does this all sound too-too open, messy and freeform? Well, in case you’ve never thought about it this way, that’s exactly what university research really is: the active, on-going, opportunistic, creative and chaotic process of hunting new knowledge, whatever and wherever that might be. Frankly, the very nature of university research often disturbs people who don’t understand the process and expect something more staid and business-like. Reseach is exploration and no real researcher can tell you in advance exactly what they are going to find. One of our goals here is to help you experience and understand the sometimes wild and quirky world of academic research, in the hope that you will also see its glories and then be interested and, perhaps, as excited as we are.

If you pay attention to politics or editorial comments, you’ve heard the criticism: “Why are university researchers studying (insert peculiar/obscure/unintelligible topic here) and why should my tax dollars be supporting it?” This common comment especially embarrasses us science writers – not because the criticism is embarrassing, but because it clearly means that we haven’t effectively done our job in showing you why this seemingly odd/trivial/strange/silly piece of knowledge really matters. In the last presidential election, one of the candidates hit such a nerve of mine with a campaign joke. He heard about researchers gathering DNA from grizzly bears in our national parks, and he quipped that this was "CSI Yellowstone" -- obviously a silly  and wasteful use of federal money. A science writer should have been able to immediately explain to the public that the research was, in fact, very relevant to people living in Montana and Idaho, where there are populations of wild bears that need to be carefully monitored and managed. Grizzlies are dangerous animals who are not easily located and approached in the vast wilds of the Rockies. They breed secretly, producing new, untagged bears, and they can range over hundreds of miles. Just about the only way to keep track of them is by looking at their DNA through the hair they leave behind on trees. See? This is not as silly/pointless/wasteful as it first seemed. In fact, it's critical research if you are a rancher concerned that your range land may be harboring an overly dense population of bears.

A grizzly. You might want to know how many of these are in the woods.

Okay then, you might ask, but what about the effective use of our limited tax dollars? Research is expensive -- why can’t such a big expenditure be limited exclusively to practical research topics that are economically or socially important? Why study bears when what the public really wants is a better cell phone?

The charge of obscurity/triviality/frivolity might well have been leveled a several decades ago against some materials researchers who were fanatically engaged in using multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art research equipment to lay down ultra-thin layers of atoms on top of other materials. They were curious, among other things, about electrical properties on the atomic scale, a topic which was, while interesting to physicists and some visionary electrical engineers, hardly an area of concern in the average American household. If this had been federally-funded and a politician had objected to this obvious “boondoggle,” the research might have lost critical funding and the subsequent loss of that science is something that you probably wouldn’t expect anyone to miss… except perhaps in Silicon Valley – which actually didn’t exist yet, and never would without this foundational research. And so would have evaporated the multiple futures of the integrated circuit, the PC, the internet, the cell phone, the smartphone -- and all the industries and culture these technologies spawned.
The writer, working at this blog. Odd to think that none of this
 would be possible without the arcane experiments of
physicists working at Bell Labs in the 1950's.


















My point, of course, is that new knowledge is what makes possible new advances in human civilization, and it is often impossible to know whether or not some new truth is going to be valuable/useful/important until it is discovered…or even long after. New knowledge is like that – you often don’t know it is important or valuable ... until you find that it is. Some of the infinitely varied university investigations you read about on this blog may still strike you as arcane or weird, but we hope you will join us in keeping an open and receptive mind to their potential value. If the stories provoke or inflame you, please let us know, though we hope you will hold your harshest boos until the future has spoken.

Perhaps on occasion, you’ll feel inclined to cheer – that would be nice too.

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