Page last updated at 11:27 GMT, Thursday, 24 September 2009 12:27 UK

Is there any point to 'frivolous' academic research?

Toast
Toast research was about food formulations

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Is there anything to be learned from academic research on how to make the perfect slice of toast and whether monkeys can write Shakespeare?

If you sit monkeys at a computer, will they type the works of the Bard? No, they will partially destroy the machine, use it as a lavatory and mostly type the letter "s". It took university researchers one month and £2,000 of Arts Council England money to find this out.

Changes are now being proposed for how public money is awarded for university research. In future funding for researchers might be assessed in part on the impact their work has had in social, economic and cultural terms.

There are reports that if such changes are introduced it could put an end to seemingly trivial research projects - which often make great headlines in the newspapers but seem to have little, if any, intellectual rigour. But is this fair? Are populist papers just a waste of time?

GET THE POINT?
Dan Meyer
The side effects of sword swallowing and other studies
What three pieces of research taught us. Read more here

While there is plenty of sniffiness about headline-grabbing research stunts in the fusty corridors of academe, there are many willing to defend this type of work. The findings seized on by the media - often with the help of sharp-minded university publicity folk - are often not the aim of research, just a by-product of it, say those in the field. An academic's life work will not solely be about finding the formula for the perfect cheese sarnie.

"These more trivial findings often come out of long-term work on much more serious stuff," says Paul Cotrell, of the University College Union.

"Or a professor might do something frivolous to promote a university in the media or the course they teach. It's a brilliant way of getting headlines, but they are not being employed just to find out the formula for the perfect cheese sandwich."

This formula, which all comes down to the thickness of the type of cheese you are using, was in fact funded by the British Cheese Council, and carried out by Dr Len Fisher at Bristol University. He had previously researched the issue of the perfect way to dunk a biscuit.

"Often industry funds this type of stuff," says a spokesman for the Science Media Centre, which promotes science in the news. "It usually doesn't involve much time on the part of the academic but earns them money and gets their name and university in the paper."

Silly science

For many academics, research is the most prized part of their job - a chance to broaden their knowledge in the hope it will lead to breakthroughs in understanding and contribute to the wider intellectual discourse. While populist research papers can make a splash in the news, its in academic journals and books that their work is evaluated by peers.

While it may be a mysterious world to those on the outside, in one way it operates like most other industries - it is highly competitive. A key to career progression is the "impact factor" and getting published and your name known.

"A high impact factor is important because it means more kudos and respect within the research world, which can translate into more funding for other work," says the centre's spokesman.

Celebrity does not further careers in academic research, excellent research does
Paul Cotrell
University College Union

Such studies also get "unsexy" subjects like science in the media, making it accessible to the man in the street.

"The sillier aspect of science is often publicised and that does have benefits," says Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK.

"But most of the work that is done is serious and about advancing knowledge. That needs to be covered by the media as well. There is a place for both."

Reputation needs to be carefully managed though, as being too populist can lead to prejudice and handicap someone's career.

"Celebrity does not further careers in academic research, excellent work does," says Mr Cotrell.

Missed message

In 2003, the papers were full of reports of a formula for the "perfect slice of toast".

The man behind the research, Bronek Wedzicha, a food scientist at Leeds University, appeared on news bulletins in the UK and abroad, explaining the optimum temperatures of bread and butter for the tastiest toast.

"The equation, which was spurious, captured the imagination but we didn't get the flavour-release message across. It was aimed at the food industry and scientists working in flavour science and people who are formulating food and trying to work out what properties they need.

Test tubes
The frivolous can come from the serious

"What we had done with butter applied more widely to food formulations, the way flavours are released and flavours absorbed by bread or other foods like potatoes."

Butter manufacturer Lurpak wanted some publicity and funded the research to the tune of £10,000 - half of it funded the toast research, half went to the university to fund projects like student scholarships.

"We wouldn't work exclusively to do PR, we have to have an economic return, which in this case was a greater understanding of flavour release mechanism," says Professor Wedzicha. "We got £10,000 and Lurpak got some very good PR out of it."

For about two years, academics have had to demonstrate the impact of research, he says. But it's very easy to make a joke out of food stories because everyone thinks they know about food and it's very easy to rubbish the science.

Additional reporting by Tom Geoghegan


Academic research can take many forms and it covers a wide range of subjects:

MONKEYS & THE BARD

The study: A single computer was placed in a monkey enclosure at Paignton Zoo to monitor the literary output of six primates.

Who and when: Students at University of Plymouth, 2003, paid for from a £2,000 Arts Council grant

The aim: To test the "infinite monkey theory", which states that if a monkey hits keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time, it will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.

What was learnt: The theory is flawed. After one month - admittedly not an "infinite" amount of time - the monkeys had partially destroyed the machine, used it as a lavatory, and mostly typed the letter "s".

SWORD SWALLOWING

The study: More than 100 sword swallowers from 16 countries were asked about injuries they had suffered practising their skill

Who and when: Sword swallower Dan Meyer and radiologist Brian Witcombe, published in the British Medical Journal in 2006

The aim: To explore the side-effects of sword swallowing

What was learnt: They received data from 46 sword swallowers. Common ailments included sore throats, especially when learning the trade. They sometimes damage the oesophagus, although usually not seriously, but major bleeding of the stomach does also happen. They run a higher risk of injury when they are distracted or add to the performance using multiple or oddly-shaped swords. There had been 29 fatalities during the past 100 years.

TORTURE & TRUTH

The study: The examination of 10 methods formerly used by the CIA - including stress positions, sleep deprivation and waterboarding - to extract information from the long-term memories of captives. Method was to test what is known against what is in the scientific literature.

Who and when: Unfunded research by Professor Shane O'Mara of Trinity College, Dublin, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science in Sept 2009

The aim: To explore the belief that extreme stress and anxiety can help in the release of information from memory

What was learnt: The experience of extreme stressors most likely has a detrimental effect on the brain systems supporting memory, in contrast to the beliefs of the proponents of these techniques. This appears counterintuitive, as many believe that experiencing severe and chronic stress over long periods of time should encourage people to reveal the contents of their memories. However, it appears that severe and prolonged stress has a harmful effect on the areas of the brain supporting memory.

What others said: Clinical psychologist David Harper said the research supported other studies in this area, but sheds new light on the biological effects of extreme stress. It's very good, says Mr Harper, because it asks basic questions about the assumptions of people using these techniques.


A selection of your comments appears below.

The belief that "Publically funded research should have some economic benefit to the UK. Applications for research grants should be assessed within the economic benefit framework." is short sighted. Research can range from that which will have a direct and immediate impact, such as drug formulation and trials etc, to the most basic aquisition of knowledge. After all, if you don't know the principles and mechanisms of how something works in the first place, how do you fix/improve it? Knowledge is an admirable and desirable end in itself, irrespective of economics, social or cultural impact. there is no such thing as "bad knowledge".
Dr Ian White, University College London

I edit a medical journal and have just been sent a press release about research undertaken in Japan on 33 women which showed that eating blackcurrants reduced sagging under the eyes! No mention of how many blackcurrants, for how long... Worse, someone in Scotland is "keen" to repeat the research in this country to see if it works. Not sure how important that is in the grand scheme of things?
Rebecca Linssen, London

Do the researchers think that if they get enough time and money, we shall eventually know everything there is to know about Life? Who are they trying to kid? They shouldn't be too surprised if so much of their heavily-funded "research" gets held up to ridicule. Who can forget, a few years ago, the prolonged "research" on hangover cures (by the University of Somewhere Or Other) which ended by solemnly announcing that the best way of avoiding hangovers is not to drink alcohol?!
Gee, Midlands

I've never 'got' the infinite monkey theory. If I were to sit randomly tapping keys I'm lucky to get a real word, never mind a sentence. Even if I had an infinity to play with I'd probably get bored, type 's' repeatedly and defecate on the keyboard before smashing the machine up.
Lee, Manchester, UK

The infinite monkeys theory is a mathematical certainty. Extrapolate the accuracy of the data the actual monkeys produced by 100% and you have all works ever published (and all those not published for that matter).
Robert Cumming, Leeds

Re: Monkeys and The Bard: I doubt that the original theorist was meaning the use of an actual monkey. More likely the term was meant as a metaphor for something that generates random letters. It is jokes and jokers like this that give science a bad name.
Joe Atherton, Stafford, England

I would've thought that these new guidelines not only exclude fluffy research but most other kinds as well. For example, surely it would exclude research undertaken by many historians as that will not directly meet any of the criteria mentioned? Sounds to me like the government are trying to clamp down on independent thinking and academics going against the status quo.
Kim, Leeds, UK

I'm happy for spurious research as long as no public money is involved and there is no impact to publically funded research. Publically funded research should have some economic benefit to the UK. Applications for research grants should be assessed within the economic benefit framework.
David Henderson, Birchington



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