By understanding the ends of research can universities regain their relevance?

By understanding the ends of research can universities regain their relevance?

In his famous report Vannevar Bush famously described science and research as an endless frontier. However, as Seth Rudy and Rachael Scarborough King argue, being more attentive to where and how research ends might enable universities to construct environments and organizations that are better able to address society’s most pressing challenges.


In the modern research university, the dozens of disciplines into which knowledge producers are sorted, from undergraduate students to senior professors, generally fall into one of three divisions: humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences. For two centuries, this tripartite structure has provided researchers with the space, resources, and opportunity to develop narrow-but-deep expertise in a given subject and advance human learning as a whole.

History shows us, though, that academic structures change; sometimes dramatically. They are not inherent to knowledge itself. The major problems of our historical moment, from the climate crisis, to income inequality, to the challenges of artificial intelligence, require solutions that traverse fields. If we want the university to remain a viable space for the creation and dissemination of knowledge (an increasingly open question in some quarters) then the ability to conceive of, articulate, and interrogate shared visions of their purpose, or ends, across the varied disciplines of the arts and sciences would be an important step forward.

academic structures change; sometimes dramatically. They are not inherent to knowledge itself.

Our new volume, The Ends of Knowledge: Outcomes and Endpoints Across the Arts and Sciences asks how we should understand the ends of knowledge today. What is the relationship between an individual knowledge project, say, an experiment on a fruit fly, a reading of a poem, or the creation of a Large Language Model, and the aim of a discipline or field? In areas ranging from physics, to literary studies, to activism, to climate science, we asked practitioners to consider the ends of their work as well as its end: the point at which it might be complete. The responses showed surprising points of commonality in identifying the ends of knowledge, as well as the value of having the end in sight.

Beyond standard formulations in research reports and impact evaluations, this simple question is often not posed. In the era of the neoliberal university, presidents, politicians, and parents alike often emphasise a view of education oriented toward skills acquisition for narrow career purposes–what Sir Francis Bacon, at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, disparaged in The Advancement of Learning as the most commonly sought, but still ultimately false, ends of “lucre and profession.” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s attacks on “low-value” university courses that do not provide “good outcomes” determined in part by graduate earnings, are perhaps among the highest profile, but they are scarcely original. Students have been routinely pressured for years to choose majors based solely on (often inaccurate or misleading) information about earnings potential. Departments are compelled to justify their existence based on their numbers of declared majors and cost-to-student ratios, as if the knowledge produced by the disciplines they represent served no purpose beyond the major, and as if every major is or should be a direct pipeline to a career in its subject.

In the era of the neoliberal university, presidents, politicians, and parents alike often emphasise a view of education oriented toward skills acquisition for narrow career purposes

The tail of research assessment metrics likewise wags the dog of knowledge production as another end in and of itself. A recent article in PNAS suggests that the sciences as a whole face similar challenges to the humanities in terms of purpose and endpoint. As the authors explain, scientific research seems to follow a pattern in which a few well-cited works elicit a “deluge” of follow-up work that positions their findings in relation to them. As a result, “the progress of large scientific fields may be slowed, trapped in existing canon.” The sciences’ emphasis on research productivity, when defined in the quantitative terms of publications and citations, may be at odds with the greater end of scientific advancement. Goodhart’s Law applies across all fields.

For us, the question of ends is a means of finding new common grounds

What if, though, instead of endlessly attempting to analyse and remedy the troubles of a particular discipline or division, we turned our attention to the system of division itself? We argue that reorganising knowledge production around questions or problems rather than objects of study, would move away from the divisional and disciplinary zoning that got us this far but may now primarily serve the ends of the institution; it would help us move past counterproductive divides (e.g., STEM v. Humanities); it would prioritise the substance of subjects above numbers of majors or other misapplied metrics; and it would allow for new knowledge to emerge by facilitating novel combinations and connections instead of forcing them to fit into structures that either cannot accommodate or actively undermine them. Perhaps, then, it would finally enable us to escape the discourse of crisis that tends to keep knowledge production in a war of all against all, and endless competition for students, resources, and facilities.

These four groupings—unification, access, utopia, and conceptualisation—appear very different from our current divisions

For us, the question of ends is a means of finding new common grounds upon which to build new organizational structures for knowledge production as well as a way of clarifying and stopping what no longer works, or could work better. When we asked researchers from across the arts and sciences to consider the ends of their disciplines, we found that they fell into four groups that cut across the old tripartite structure. One group took the approach of unification: unifying knowledge across and within different fields as we now understand them; a second grouping found their ends in access and social justice; the third asked whether the question of ends could foster utopian outcomes, or whether “ending” leads to dystopia; and the last saw their field’s end as the articulation of a key concept, such as “liveness” (in performance studies’ case) or “race” (for Black studies).

These four groupings—unification, access, utopia, and conceptualisation—appear very different from our current divisions of the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. We offer them not as the last word in re-zoning academia, but as a foray into the possibility of renewal. We cannot know what kinds of knowledge we are not producing, how we might be more useful to each other, or what ideas we are not coming up with that could make all of our knowledge more useful to the world, because the system is not designed to facilitate the discovery and development of systems that might replace it. The question of ends should be pursued at increasing scales, from the individual researcher, to the office or department, to the discipline, to the university, to academia, and to knowledge production as a whole, to determine what other and perhaps better arrangements might emerge for facing the world as we now find it.

 


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