Trivia Pursuit; Too Much of America's Research Money Goes to Studies Nobody Wants to Read

By Hamilton, David P. | The Washington Monthly, March 1991 | Go to article overview

Trivia Pursuit; Too Much of America's Research Money Goes to Studies Nobody Wants to Read


Hamilton, David P., The Washington Monthly


David P Hamilton is a reporter for Science.

Too much of America's research money goes to studies nobody wants to read

Like most academic libraries, the Gelman Library at George Washington University is an impressive place if you're easily awed by thinking about the accumulated weight of human knowledge. Although the building itself, a squat seven-story slab of concrete and glass, won't win any architecture prizes, it does possess a certain solemnity. Just inside is a room filled with the modem equivalent of the card catalog-flashing terminals before which anxious students are busily compiling lists of the books they need for footnotes in their current research paper. Below, the basement holds several million pounds of government documents; above, three floors are devoted to classrooms and offices, while two more hold the library's collection of 1.5 million books. Sandwiched between offices and the stacks is the periodicals floor, which holds both the popular magazine collection and perhaps as many as 10,000 scholarly journals-the published record of the world's past and present academic research.

Just standing in the presence of so much painstakingly assembled research is humbling. But once you begin to look with a critical eye through the material kept there, some of your awe might begin to wane. Pass through the current periodical section, and you'll find titles of "scholarly" research journals like School Food Service Journal, Bee World, and The Journal of Band Research. Pick up one of these journals and actually try to read it, and you can make an even scarier discovery: that an unfortunately large percentage of what passes as the bedrock of academic achievement more closely resembles intellectual quicksand. For instance, the literature chronicling recent research in the social sciences includes the following:

"An Empirical Methodology for the Ethical Assessment of Marketing Phenomena Such as Casino Gambling" Journal of the Academy of Marketing), in which University of Detroit professor Oswald Mascarenhas explains not only that gamblers are more favorably disposed toward gambling than non-gamblers ("teleological and deontological justifications of casino gambling were decisively low"), but that people look more favorably on gambling if they think they can get rich at it ("distributive justice related conditional acceptance of casino gambling was higher").

> "Securing the Middle Ground: Reporter Fomulas in '60 Minutes' " (Critical Studies in Mass Communication), in which University of Michigan professor Richard Campbell analyzes 154 of the show's episodes and concludes that its meaning lies in "story formulas" in which reporters "construct a mythology for Middle America." Wait, there's more-"60 Minutes" has the power "to transform and deform experience, to secure a middle ground for audiences, and to build unified meanings in and for a pluralistic culture." (And you thought it was just a news program.)

> "Autonomy, Interdependence, and Social Control: NASA and the Space Shuttle Challenger" (Administrative Science Quarterly), a 32-page dissection of the NASA mistakes leading to the Challenger accident, after which Boston College professor Diane Vaughan concludes that "this case study does not generate the sort of comparative information on which definitive policy statements can be made." Those sorts of judgments, it turns out, require the systematic assembly of data on "the relationship between autonomy, interdependence, and social control in diverse types of regulatory settings." Even then, difficulties in measuring variation in autonomy and interdependence" will make policy decisions "imprecise." And "our lack of skill at converting research findings into diagnostic recommendations for organizations" will also hinder the search for concrete solutions.

It might seem unfair to pick on the social sciences, which have long suffered by comparison with the more glamorous and better-funded "hard" sciences (physical and life science, medicine, and engineering). …

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