Fridays with Fuhrmann: Why Do Research?

Autonomous vehicle research by ECE Assistant Professor Jeremy Bos
Autonomous vehicle research by ECE Assistant Professor Jeremy Bos

A very happy Memorial Day Weekend to everyone. The weather here has warmed up nicely, all of a sudden, just in time for long holiday weekend and the unofficial beginning of summer. Over the years this has become one of my favorite holidays. For academics it is a time when we can look forward to the summer in anticipation of all of our great progress on projects we have been putting off, before reality and humility hit home in August. Back when I lived in Missouri, it was the start of the summer boating season at the Lake of the Ozark, and here in Houghton I am happy just to see everything green again after a long winter. I guess the main reason I enjoy this weekend so much is that my wife and I were married on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, 22 years ago this year, and we celebrate our anniversary on Sunday independent of the date – although this year the 28th does fall on Sunday and when that happens it’s even nicer. Sunday is the day of the Indianapolis 500, by the way, so even though I am not a big racing fan it serves as a pleasant reminder of that happy day.

Last week I decided to raise the “big question” – asking why we do what we do. What is it that gets our juices flowing, gets us excited about coming to work, gives us some purpose in life? Obviously I cannot answer that for all the individuals in the ECE Department, but I certainly hope that everyone would have a good answer, and be able to come up with it pretty quickly too. A big part of my job is to connect those individual passions with the group goals, whether we are talking about the strategic plan for the ECE Department or the mission and vision of Michigan Tech as a whole.

The question I want to address today is, why do we do research? One would think that would not be too hard to answer, but actually over the past few years I have heard a lot of conflicting opinions about this. I have also come to my own conclusion about this, and now hope to take advantage of my little bully pulpit to make my case. If I am right, then I think that ultimately we may be able to put policies and procedures in place that serve to strengthen our research programs, and at the same time strengthen everything else that we do.

Here is my answer: we do research to make the world a better place. Now that may seem a little trite and simplistic, but I mean that in the broadest possible sense. We make the world a better place in a lot of different ways, and what I really mean by that statement is, the research itself is primary. We do research because we believe that the results of our research will have some tangible benefit to humankind, whether it is advancing our understanding of how the world works, or it solves some intellectual puzzle in mathematics, or it leads to technological advances that improve the human condition. Everyone who does research properly knows the reason behind the research, and the range of possible applications. Whatever problem we are trying to solve, the solution to that problem should be our primary motivation, and if we are lucky enough to find it we should go home happy.

The point above will be made clearer if I state some reasons that I believe are the wrong reasons for doing research. Here is my list of three misguided reasons; there may be others: 1) we do research so we can have a PhD program, 2) we do research for faculty development, 3) we do research because someone tells us we have to.

Let me take the PhD issue first, because this is where I find the greatest confusion and misunderstanding, and the greatest difference of opinion. Virtually all great research institutions have strong PhD programs, and the two go hand-in-hand. Since a lot of research is carried out by graduate students, it is easy to see why one might be led to believe that the research activity exists to serve the PhD program. I maintain that nothing could be further from the truth. A successful research program should be led by experienced faculty, who are doing the work out of their love for the field itself, as described above. In the process, if they so chose, they can bring PhD students into that research activity, and serve as an example for them. As one of my former colleagues at Washington University, Marcel Muller, used to put it, a PhD program is an apprenticeship in research. A graduate student comes to the university, lines up with a research advisor, and learns all about how research is done from that personal one-on-one relationship. We must remember, however, that the PhD is still an educational program, and it exists separate from the research. That is why we have specific milestones along the way to the degree, such as qualifying exams and dissertation proposals, and why we have committees to make sure that those milestones are being met. At an educational institution like Michigan Tech we may view training PhD students as an important part of our mission, which it is, but we are making a mistake if we take that attitude too far and do all of our research vicariously through the students.

A strong research program can accomplish a great deal even without PhD students. Many successful programs include personnel at all different levels, including post-doctoral research fellows and full-time research engineers or research scientists. I would argue that a tenured or tenure-track faculty member, who spends a lot of time as a research supervisor, should always have some project that they consider theirs alone, that they can work on without the collaboration of students. A research organization should be like a music conservatory, where the leaders are performers as well as teachers. Perhaps another good model is the teaching hospital, where the mentors for the next generation of doctors are all practicing clinicians and surgeons in their own right. The PhD program is just one component in the research mix, and prospective PhD students should be looking for opportunities to learn the craft of research from the masters of the craft.

The second flawed reason I give for doing research is faculty development. Here I mean that doing research so that faculty members have something stimulating to do, that they stay current in the field, have something to put on their CVs, or so that they have a reason to go to conferences and interact with their peers. All of those are perfectly valid things to want to do. However, all of those activities serve to further the research agenda, and should not be seen as a reason for the research activity in the first place. Just as in the case of the PhD students, the latter is putting the cart before the horse. One might argue that doing research makes us better teachers, and while that may very well be true, it is still not the the right reason to do research. The ideal scholarly situation occurs when research and teaching co-exist in a sort of symbiotic balance. It’s not always easy to pull off, but when it’s working that’s when the magic happens.

The absolute worst reason to do research is to do it because someone else wants you to do it. Any such research program is doomed to mediocrity. Anyone who joins a research university as a teacher, and complains of a “publish or perish” culture, or thinks of teaching as the real work while research is just something we do to entertain ourselves, probably ought to find another place to work. If we are doing research because we want to make the world a better place, then we are motivated to publish so that we can tell the rest of the world exactly how we have done that. Research is a “get to”, not a “have to.” I am not saying that research is more important than teaching, nor am I saying that everyone at a successful university has to focus primarily on research. We need to recognize that we are a diversity community, and strive to make the most of everyone’s talent and passion. The last thing we need to be doing is force people to do things they are not good at or for which they have no motivation. The trick of course is to identify those individuals, through the processes of hiring, promotion, and tenure, whose goals and aspirations line up with those of the institution.

As we work to build our research activity in the ECE Department at Michigan Tech, we may need to go through a period of contraction in our PhD program until the two are properly aligned. Over the past several years we went through a period of intentional growth in our PhD program, but I cannot honestly say that our research program has experienced a corresponding similar growth. Let me be more precise, and also fair: our research program, as measured by research expenditures, has not grown substantially. However, our research program, as measured by the number of faculty members with external research funding has grown by quite a bit, and I take that as a very good sign. I intend to encourage all our research-active faculty to be clear in their own minds what really drives them and what they hope to accomplish through their research. Only then does it makes sense to invite PhD students into that activity, and perhaps to excite in them that same sense of purpose. Ultimately, as I stated at the outset, I believe firmly that this will strengthen both the research activity and the PhD program, and secure for the Department the visibility and the recognition it seeks.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Have great Memorial Day everybody!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University