Saturday, 13 August 2016

I wonder how much university

research is being done under pressure?
One of my nephews is currently attempting to do his doctorate in the area of ophthalmology and support himself at the same time. There was supposed to be some research funding. He was promised this at the beginning of the academic year (February-March here in Downunder) but it has not materialised. So, he works long hours in the lab and then does stints in "A & E" to be able to eat. 
Recently he decided that, being human, he needs some sleep and that doing the "graveyard shift" was getting to be too much. This is not laziness on his part. It is simply a matter of survival and, even more importantly, not being so tired that he makes mistakes in the lab.
The work  he and his co-researchers are doing has enormous potential good - and I do not exaggerate when I use the word "enormous". It caused a great stir of interest at a recent international conference.
So, why no funding? Why no funding for some of the other research which is being done in medicine that has shown itself to have the genuine potential for good?
The answers to such questions are complex. I am co-supervising two doctoral students at present. A third has just submitted his thesis for examination. Two of the three have some government funding from their home countries. It is very plain to me that politics are involved in their funding. Yes, their projects have some potential - but limited - value. The third is funding herself by working part-time. It's a hard slog for her but her research is already showing it may have real benefits.
And I do understand how difficult it is for her because I worked part-time too. I did it all through all my tertiary education. I wouldn't have had a tertiary education without working to support myself.  When I did my doctorate I was only prepared to do it if I could see some real value in the research. I didn't want to be one of those people who do research for the sake of getting a doctorate. I wanted it to be research where the end result could be used for the benefit of others. (It was - although I turned some research by others upside down in the process.) Like the third student though I didn't have the contacts that might have resulted in some funding. 
And contacts do matter. I got a scholarship some years later. One of the people who gave me a reference was a Senator in our federal parliament. I doubt I would have got it without that. (Nobody was more stunned than I was when I got the scholarship.) She simply thought the research sounded "useful". 
There is research I would like to have done but there has, however interested or enthusiastic I might be, not been the opportunity to do it. Instead, I have done other research. It has, I hope, always been useful in that others have been able to use it to make informed decisions or develop new ways of doing something. I know it is not useful in the way my nephew's research will be useful.
Perhaps the best research is done under stress and without funding? I don't really believe that.

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