PREFACE: One of my favorite articles of all time is “The Meaningfulness of Lives” by Todd May published in the New York Times on September 11, 20122. It is a power and moving piece about leading a meaningful and valuable life. The piece written below is 99% Todd May’s own words as written in the “The Meaningfulness of Lives” article; I have simply replaced the word ‘life’ with ‘research’ to connect the metaphor to our lives as research administrators.
Who among us has not asked whether this or that research project is a meaningful one? Who has not wondered—on a sleepless night during a long stretch of dull or taxing work—whether in the end it all adds up to anything?
Meaningful research must feel meaningful and be worthwhile; both valued and valuable. A meaningful research project must, in some sense, feel worthwhile. The scientist conducting the research must be excited and absorbed by it. However, for a project to be meaningful, it must also be worthwhile. As one philosopher famously stated, “Engagement in a life of tiddlywinks does not rise to the level of a meaningful life, no matter how gripped one might be by the game” (May, 2011).
As humans we often defend an idea by giving reasons for it. However, sometimes the best defense is not to give reasons at the outset but instead to pursue the idea in order to see where it leads. The pursuit of this core idea—that meaningful research is both valued and valuable—allows us to understand several important aspects of our attitudes towards ourselves and others.
First, is the recognition that research often unfolds over time. It is not an unrelated series of actions or projects or states of being. It has a trajectory. Sometimes, a scientist’s trajectory may seem disjointed or to lack continuity, and yet at the end of the day, it is still unfolding and the ending is not yet known.
Second, if research has a trajectory, then it can be conceived narratively. A research career can be seen as a story, or as a series of stories that are more or less related. This does not mean that the scientist whose research it is must conceive it or live it narratively. They needn’t say “here’s the story I want to construct” or “this is the story so far” although that is often what happens in academic writings. What it means rather is that, research can be seen in terms of various story lines, whether parallel or intersecting or distinct.
What makes a research trajectory a meaningful one? It has to feel worthwhile and, beyond that, has to engage projects that are objectively worthwhile. Most of us are good at sensing when we’re onto something and when we’re not. Objective worthiness is more elusive. This is because meaningful research doesn’t always coincide with good research. Meaningful research can be morally compromised, just as morally good research can feel meaningless to those who conduct it. An evil or immoral project, no matter how intense or steadfast, is not one we would want to call meaningful. But within the parameters of those moral limits, the relationship between a meaningful research project and a moral one is complicated. They do not map directly onto each other.
Why might all this matter? What is the point of understanding what makes research meaningful? Why not just do the work in front of us? On one level, the answer is obvious. If we want to support meaningful research, we might want to know something about what makes research so. Otherwise, we’re just taking stabs in the dark. And in any event, for most of us it’s just part of who we are. It’s one of the causes of our lying awake at night.
What seems called for is an approach to thinking about the meaning of research administration that can draw us together, one that exists alongside the scientific and academic tradition. Meaningfulness and value are only obtained through shared understanding. Without fully understanding the nature of scientific research, how can you ever find its true value? And by reflection, your own value within the profession of research administration?