Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The High Cost of Low Risk Research

I write this post immediately after attending a seminar on the ‘Psychology of Sustainability’ and feel inspired to write about my views on the trajectory of the sub-discipline. I also invite responses from readers who are far wiser than I about the whys and wherefores of academic research, generally.

I will begin by saying that I enjoyed this seminar. I have learned to expect variety in the intelligibility and quality of the conferences and seminars I attend but this one was particularly satisfying. For the majority of the day, apart from the odd daydream here and there, I held my attention and actually followed much of what the speakers were talking about – a not insignificant personal success.

But as the afternoon drew to a close and the speaker rushed through her presentation in an attempt to bring the timing of the day back into its rigidly pre-prepared schedule, my mind began to drift towards some ‘metathoughts’ about the state of the discipline as I have observed it by attending this seminar series (this was the third of three which have been held over the last six months or so). I don’t claim to have stumbled upon some original thoughts or insights on the matter and I apologise if I have ‘borrowed’ somebody else’s analysis -- probable and likely -- but am unable to reference or credit them for it.

What I want to talk about is the incremental, slow-build approach to developing knowledge in the environmental psychology discipline. Environmental psychology began to emerge in the latter half of the last century and has its theoretical roots in the more established social psychology domain: this is clearly evident in contemporary environmental psychology research, for example, in studies of social norms in pro-environmental behaviour. This is a sensible and worthwhile endeavour; however, research invariably concludes that the findings that were expected to be found were realised and that “more research in this area is needed to understand demographic differences/underlying psychological processes”, and so on. In other words, future research should concentrate on uncovering ever more elusive truths in ever more finely defined detail. Justifying this approach to research no doubt is a conviction that “this is how we build knowledge; this is how we sculpt the fine details of our theories”. This may be so but I would argue that there is an opportunity cost to this: while the best minds in the field are focused on sharpening what there already is, they are not imagining any great leap into the untried and unchartered territory that may deliver the knowledge that we need for the future. The everyday language of academia is hyperbolic and boasts of a commitment to innovation, but to what extent do we follow through on our talk? Are we willing to let our imaginations run riot with regards to research ideas? Are we willing to stake time, finance, and reputation on research just to see what happens? Alternatively, will we continue to design studies that only serve to confirm what we probably intuitively knew already? More broadly, this makes me want to ask: to what extent is prospecting for new research fields restrained by the commitment academics are expected to show towards intellectual rigour (its only rigorous because we already know it or can expect to know it) and narrow theoretical development? I am not suggesting that we abandon all sensibilities towards our research endeavours, but instead that we can begin to endorse an attitude towards research that is not so risk-averse. Truly, if the consequences of human behaviour for climate change are to be believed, and if environmental psychology intends to throw its weight behind the search for solutions, then is it not worth loosening the restrictions that may restrain the intellectual creativity that the discipline needs?


  1. I think this skew of optimisation over innovation is a universdal doctrine. (It has certainly been evident in my background, engineering.) This shift probably corresponded with the computer age - the focus on a tool that can (only) optimise and provide rigour. Although I suspect we are at the early stage of a swing back to a better balance. Anyway, I certainly share your sentiments.

  2. Hi Gareth. This is really interesting since it parallels some of my own thinking. Once upon a time the role of Professors was to do the blue skies thinking and the weaving of theory, whilst others in their team did the "sharpening what there already is," stuff, Nowadays, in my own field I can think of only one professor who publishes cutting edge theory. I wonder how much of professorial research activity is driven by bidding targets and the Research Excellence Framework Add to this, the fact that many nursing programs no longer encourage their undergraduates/post graduates to do research which means at least one generation of researchers have been lost, then it is hardly surprising that the intellectual breathing space has become restricted. Tine for the pendulum to swing back?

  3. I hear what you are saying Gareth. Particularly in relation to some of the research that is currently going on in Environmental Psychology. I get really impatient with the persistent testing of loads of slightly different hypotheses, testing/retesting findings, developing intricate theories that appear to me as being far removed from people etc etc – none of this is getting us anywhere fast. I believe that to make a real contribution to the environmental ‘problems’ and the way we will live in the future, Environmental Psychology needs to move at the same pace as the world. The risk of low-risk research is getting left behind. I’m not one for investing time, money and effort into researching something just to see what happens, but I’m all for innovation – epistemological, ontological, and methodological. I also think we should be doing more interdisciplinary research – let’s push the boat out and see what happens!

  4. Hi commenters, thanks for your contributions. I’m glad it’s not just me who is thinking along these lines, and, as I suspected, it’s not confined to the disciplines I am familiar with.

    Because there is less restraint on their intellectual freedom, most of the innovative and exciting research comes from the postgraduate community. As Caz points out, professional research activity is driven by bidding targets and the REF, and I agree that this systems perspective reveals how original research ideas can be stifled. But I also think that we have an archaic social structure in academia that contributes to the problem, too. Obtaining the doctorate is seen as the researcher’s peak achievement and marks the passing of a student’s journey into professional competence. But this is only the beginning, or at least it should be. Developing an ‘expertise’ in one particular field or methodology does not preclude a researcher from expanding into others. Too often, post-docs adopt the ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ mantra to their research – they do similar projects but on a smaller scale. This is an easy option for post-doc research and is pursued because of a false belief in one’s ‘expertise’. There are other words for ‘expertise’: these are ‘comfort zone’ and ‘rut’. But why change when you have proved yourself and become an accepted member of the club?

    Postgraduates, and often undergraduates, are in the position of having to come up with something new because it is new to them. They have the privilege of ignorance as to what has gone before; they do not have the expectations of others or of themselves upon their shoulders; and, they are usually untainted by a system that seeks to control and exploit them (intellectually at least!).

    Needless to say, I would support a movement that subverts the current system and structure into one that facilitates, encourages, and rewards bold, original thinking and experimentation. And, if I make it to the promised land of the post-doc and you see me pushing questionnaires under the noses of students in lecture halls for my research, then you have my permission to take an axe to my head and use it as a football.