Blog post #1 – Alex King

“The research enterprise of a leading academic institution is a complex system of human, physical and digital infrastructures that functions to support the production of new knowledge and the advancement and training of research practitioners.”

I agree with the general sentiment of this statement, but perhaps this response would be more interesting if I described the areas where my own sentiment and the statement’s diverge and the related changes I would make.

First, why are we restricting ourselves to discussing only “leading academic institution[s]”?  Any academic institution that engages in research, leading or not, should have human, physical, and digital infrastructures.  And for that matter, there are plenty of non-academic centers of research.  To that end, I would change this phrase from “leading academic institution[s]” to “research institution[s]” more generally.

Discussing “human…infrastructures” makes me a little queasy.  The phrase suggests something like organizational charts, hierarchies, and complex networks of relationships.  All may be important to the research process, but ultimately the “production of new knowledge” must be driven by human beings, not “human infrastructures.”  More valuable than the infrastructure of people is the people themselves.  To borrow a phrase from the business world, it’s human capital – the value of people themselves – that drives research forward.

Similarly, I would change “physical…infrastructures” to “physical resources.”  As we’ve read in The Fourth Paradigm and A Vast Machine, in the modern era data is collected by physical instruments (such as meteorological stations and space telescopes) that report their findings back to home base, using – you guessed it – “digital infrastructures.”  Researchers then use the digital infrastructure to analyze the “big data” and generate results.

On a stylistic, superficial level, the verb phrase “functions to support” is unnecessarily wordy and beats around the bush.  Why not simply use the verb “support” instead?

I hesitate to use the word “production” in describing scientific research.  It’s too cold and treats the research institution as if it were a factory.  “Creation” is a much more positive – and human-centric – way of describing the same thing.

Finally, while I agree that “the advancement and training of research practitioners” is very important for research institutions, it is not an essential part of their “research [or scientific] enterprise.”  The creation of new knowledge is the real mission and should take center stage in this statement.

In full, I would edit the original statement to read thus:

“The scientific enterprise of a research institution is a complex system of human capital, physical resources, and digital infrastructures that support the creation of new knowledge.”

Subtle changes, to be sure, but they do alter the sentiment to: (a.) make the original statement more inclusive of non-academic research institutions; (b.) affirm the primacy of humans themselves in the research process; and (c.) emphasize the creation of new knowledge as the true and inviolable mission of those research institutions above all else.

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One Response to Blog post #1 – Alex King

  1. cyberprofgus says:

    I like your editing and the logic behind it, Alex. But your version loses the additional mission (beyond knowledge creation) of advancing the human capital. Can you work that in to your succinct version? Also, based on many previous posts, I’d suggest writing “… that *together* support…” to emphasize their interrelationship.

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