For Its Own Sake

When knowledge isn't for sale

Vol. 7 No. 3
December 2004/January 2005

For Its Own Sake
When knowledge isn't for sale

How you package and promote your knowledge is equally as important as how to produce world-class knowledge. Jagdish Sheth, Charles H. Kellstadt Professor of Marketing

I don’t think the basic researcher has an obligation to apply what he or she discovers.
Marshall Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology

The Negative Benefits of Historical Study
On not applying the lessons of the past
Patrick Allitt, Professor of History

Teaching the Teachers
Reinventing graduate and postdoctoral education
Pat Marsteller, Senior Lecturer in Biology and Director of
the Emory College Center for Science Education

Further reading

Poetry Happens
The power and popularization of an ancient art at Emory


Return to Contents

"I‘m an academician entirely. My work isn’t intended to affect practice; it is research for the sake of understanding.”

The words of Greg Waymire, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Accounting and Senior Associate Dean of the Goizueta Business School, seem oddly quaint, considering that his discipline prizes above all information that nourishes the bottom line.

Further, such attention to the bottom line is arguably becoming a mainstay in academic research cultures. According to a survey by the Association of University Technology Managers, universities collected more than $959 million from commercialization of drugs, software, and other academic inventions in 2002. Emory stood tenth on the list, primarily because researchers here developed and licensed the anti-aids drug Epivir, which alone was responsible for $25 million of the $30.6 million it amassed in licensing income that year. Another sign of the times is the new National Institutes of Health (NIH) “roadmap” emphasizing translational knowledge that yields “effective prevention strategies and new treatments” and “aims to accelerate the pace of discovery and speed the application of new knowledge to the development of new prevention strategies, new diagnostics and new treatments, and, ultimately, to the transfer of these innovations to health care providers, and the public,” as the NIH website declares.

At a time when many academics feel pressure to conduct mission-driven research that holds, implicitly or explicitly, the promise of salability, Waymire’s sentiment runs against the tide. It also con-
tains a key question: What place does knowledge production hold in fields that are inherently, if not literally, mercenary? More generally, does the production of knowledge need to be undertaken with a flinty, utilitarian eye?

Waymire and others clearly think not. For many scholars—even those in applied disciplines—the line between knowledge production and practice not only blurs, it simply doesn’t exist, chiefly because making such distinctions serves
little purpose. “I don’t think that a basic researcher has an obligation to apply what he or she discovers,” says Marshall Duke, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology. “The obligation is to discover and to understand.” In the realm of inquiry, Duke sees basic and applied research on equal footing, but perhaps wearing different shoes and traveling different paths that may or may not cross—or trip over—one another.

Psychology holds a prime example of such kismet. In the 1930s, researchers studied the effects of operant conditioning on animals—work that was not directed at any particular application. It took thirty years for various types of practitioners to integrate that fundamental research into applications such as childhood education (think stars, stickers, hand stamps, and time-out rooms), military training, and a host of other programmed instruction. All of that emerged from the early, laboratory-based Skinnerian work, and it illustrates why researchers like Scott Lilienfeld, associate professor of psychology, is wary of those who value only applied research: “I think that’s dangerous because there is a crucial need for basic work, which provides much of the engine for useful, real-world applications. It’s difficult to predict where knowledge is going to go.”

Indeed, while excessive focus on practical applications may produce short-term advances, future breakthroughs will not occur unless we also nurture basic research, comments Dennis Liotta, professor of chemistry. Liotta along with his colleague, Raymond Schinazi, professor of medicine, was largely responsible for developing Epivir and Emvitra, which netted Emory an economic windfall.

“Without basic research we would have no new fundamentals to fall back on, so the kinds of advances we could make in the future would plateau,” he says. “The key is to strike a proper balance between applied and fundamental research, and probably more fundamental research, because the benefits will eventually merge.” Liotta, who began his career conducting basic science on the nature of chemical reactions, remembers a colleague who called his work a solution in search of a problem—a characterization with which he agrees. Having since moved on to the decidedly applied field of drug development, he recalls frequently drawing upon earlier work he pursued with no intent other than unraveling some of the mysteries of his science.

Payoff in the classroom

Intrinsic marketability is one way to gauge the value of knowledge, but it’s not the only way and perhaps not the best one. The monetary value of research may be quantifiable, but its influence on teaching presents a different framework for appraisal.

For scholars, all knowledge they produce could be considered practical or applied. “My practice is the teaching,” says Waymire. “My students understand accounting better than they otherwise might because I understand it better through my research.” His current work, which considers the historical relationship between accounting standards and financial markets, and which he acknowledges has little immediate relevance, has engendered in him a greater understanding of where companies might hide financial irregularities. Though rooted in the past, his research invokes a connection to the recent freshet
of corporate scandals, and he conveys his insights to his students, who may one day occupy seats of corporate power. And his research-based knowledge simultaneously allows him to spark some life into a subject that he admits can be mind-numbing. How much value can we ascribe to an ability among budding executives (or individuals weighing personal investment decisions) to recognize pecuniary shenanigans? What’s it worth to hold students’ attention by evoking images of modern-day robber barons in handcuffs?

Research influenced Liotta’s approach to teaching, too. He once taught organic chemistry in a traditional fashion, requiring students to deal with what must have seemed to his students like an infinite number of structures and reactions. “I decided it was non-optimal, so I modeled how I teach after how I do my research,” he says, noting that when he needs to fill in missing bits of information, he opens textbooks, notes, and journals as often as he opens his memory.

“My success in science comes from creative use of all the tools I have available to me, so I changed the way I structured the course to allow students to have access to all of those tools when answering questions.” Students now take home week-long open-book exams and rely not on rote but on their ability to coherently synthesize information. “I can ask much more challenging questions, and students have to immerse themselves in the material. I think it gives them a much more in-depth understanding of the material, which is very complex.”

Marcia McDonnell, associate professor of nursing and a relative newcomer to research, quickly found that her inquiries raised her awareness of evidence-based practice. In the classroom she shifted from the purely conceptual to the applied. McDonnell recently began investigating the effectiveness of nurse-directed interventions designed to encourage women with aids to adhere to their complex medication schedules and decrease high-risk behaviors.

“Conducting research has definitely made me more attuned to information and data. Now I use a lot of examples from my clinical practice and research when I give lectures,” she says. “Before, I probably wouldn’t have brought in research studies; I would have said, ‘This is what’s recommended to treat pneumonia; this is what everybody’s doing or this is the standard of care.’ Now I look closely at the recommending body and what studies they did to recommend a specific course of action.”

Lilienfeld’s research experience heightened his awareness of his own fallibility: “I’m less likely to teach certain things as unchanging truths and more likely to focus on the nature of knowledge as somewhat provisional, because I have had the experience of being sure
I was right about something but actually was largely or even completely wrong. I focus a lot of my teaching on how science is a self-correcting enterprise.”

Perhaps it boils down to Duke’s simple observation: “The more I know, the more I have to tell my students.” In any case, the relationship between knowledge production and practice aligns closely with that of knowledge production and teaching. Indeed, all three—knowledge production, knowledge in practice, and teaching—are inseparable in the environment fostered by a university.
Louis Pasteur summed up the lack of distinction well, according to Duke, when he said, “There does not exist a category of science to which one can give the name applied science. There are science and the applications of science, bound together as the fruit of the tree which bears it.”—S.F.