Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2009

Business Model Squeezes the Serendipity Out of Research

By Steve Ferzacca
The problem as I see it is that as scientists we have accepted wholeheartedly a functionalist paradigm for conceptualizing, explaining and validating the research enterprise. The norms associated with this perception of research circulate broadly beyond the research enterprise and inform much of what we do as worthy in terms of work — productive work. This aesthetic disposition surrounding research is becoming more narrowly defined and applied.

In this time of economic crisis and shortfalls, our research, if it is to be supported and recognized as worthy, must function. It must satisfy needs in productive, integrative ways so all Canadians and our social system are not merely sustained but improved in ways promised by the equally contingent cultural category of progress.

These are the fundamental features of an aesthetic disposition of work that surrounds our research, demarcating our work as worthy in socially-accepted ways that represent our mood in these anxious times. The current formulation is the recent trend to expect research that is managed and productive using business as metaphor, but more important, as a real organizing principle and real politik.

Responses from members of our research community are many, and generally the response can be characterized as outrage directed toward this current-research-as-business trope. In my estimation we are at this point in the research enterprise precisely because we have been complicit in accepting this paradigm. We have sold out, or as Frank Zappa would have said, “we are only in it for the money.” While my thoughts here can certainly be criticized for gross overstatements and vulgar generalizations, I would argue we have no one to blame but ourselves.

The social fact of aesthetic dispositions is that they are subject to numerous understandings of the associated qualifications that support competence claims. So if research is to be productive work and its worthiness is established by whether or not the results of the work function to satisfy needs, these narrow constraints can be, and have been seen otherwise. George Monbiot commented in the Guardian on this “otherwise” of the research enterprise, highlighting what we already know about conducting research and the results of this endeavor that in our current emphasis on the function of research is increasingly left behind. In these times, we must revitalize, not only for the sake of government, or even society, but for ourselves as researchers the “beauty of exploration” of which Monbiot speaks.

Since work, product and function reign supreme, one element more crucial perhaps than any other for any research enterprise is serendipity. This fact of conducting research — the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, while looking for something else entirely — is antithetical to the functionalist paradigm as a cultural logic of conducting research and as a measure of worthiness. Yet it shares interpretive ground in perceptions of research and research competence as things of life that imbue the beauty of exploration as something recognizable, something we can understand.

Renowned sociologist of science Robert K. Merton (1949) noted this “se­ren­dipity pattern,” as did Thomas Kuhn (1962) in which he identified the signi­ficance of “anomalous results” in the emergence of “revolutionary science.”

Evidence that this aesthetic disposition of the scientific endeavor has been left behind, even scoffed at, are the newspaper and other media items that appear at the time of the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. All the goofy science is parodied in order to illustrate the dysfunctional elements in academia and research. While an indirect measure of the presence of the centrality of function and work in perceptions of research, these light-hearted jabs at some science touch on a deeply-embedded suspicion of science and research as real work or labor — again a cultural category (work) firmly implanted in the functionalist paradigm.

Our response to this scrutinizing and surveillance is often defensive — continually trying to prove that we and our research are as pragmatic and practical as garbage disposal. Glossy public relations campaigns advertise our labs and universities as productive efficiency in research manufacturing. Research is actualized as training whose purpose is to produce products for society to use. The inefficiency and seemingly unproductive research laughed at in the mass media herald the potential for impotent, profitless work, if one could call it that.

Beauty, in this agreed upon configuration, is expressed as efficiency, profit, predictability, planning, management, usefulness and function. So where is the beauty Monbiot speaks of in all of this?

It might be useful to remind the public that in the 18th century Luigi Galvani was experimenting with dead frogs’ legs when the copper hooks he used to hang the legs from an iron railing caused those spindly legs to jerk. Eureka, he had inadvertently discovered the closed electrical circuit, and the electricity of nerve impulses.

The famous 19th century French scientist Louis Pasteur inoculated chickens with cholera bacteria. The poultry were expected to die, but the mistake of using an old culture of the bacteria did not kill the chicks but instead merely sickened them before they recovered. He repeated the experiment using a fresh culture and this time the chicks did not even digress into sickness, thus discovering by accident the principle of vaccination for disease prevention.

German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen, quite by accident, noticed that a screen coated with fluorescent material would display inner structures when electrical rays passing through a tube were projected on the screen. In 1901, Roentgen received the Nobel prize for his accidental discovery of X-rays.

While such accidents will surely happen it is very difficult to predict when they will, and whether or not the result will be a useful one. The accident and the accidental researcher, then, have been and will continue to be fruitful contributors to the meaning and practice of research, and so, the aesthetic disposition that at the moment seems out of favor.

Another element that confounds the functionalist paradigm of research is timeliness. Managed research means schedules of inputs and outputs so that stakeholders, or whatever they are called these days, can plan. Along with accidents is time without constraints, at least those imposed by factory-like time clocks and whistles for lunch. While Charles Darwin did not discover a theory of life organized by the idea of descent and modification, it did take him 20 years from conceptualization to write-up before his version was fully realized.

The beauty of exploration engages a rather open-ended time frame, and the imposition of just one — the schedule — has it consequences for the agreed upon, recognizable meaning of research and the actual practice of research as well. These two elements — accident and time — have either been de-emphasized or reconfigured in this new regime of values that now inform researchers and the public as to what constitutes worthy scientific exploration.

All societies have individuals who are allowed to function as imaginative, inventive, independent experimenters and thinkers whether we speak of shamans, curers, philosophers or physicists. These and other poets of reality have existed and will continue to exist anchored in numerous cultural conditions, social forms, and historical moments just like the ones we find ourselves existing within at this particular moment in time. However, in our community of interpretation there are various vantages from which to judge our research. We need not accommodate only one, even though the current tastemakers wish us to do so.

One strategy we can employ is to remind the public that the linkages between use and invention are not always so clear and direct. But more important is the resistance to cloaking research and research activity with the functionalist paradigm so completely. We cannot deny this cloak has not only completely covered our work, but also where we work and how we work. Our universities are increasingly asked to be accountable to society for the work that is generated so as to illustrate the usefulness of post-secondary education as a legitimate and competent social institution worthy of support and recognition.

Finally, the learner-driven educa­tion and business-management model that have invaded the behavior and culture of our universities and colleges seeks more intense and increasing measures of accountability. What is so perplexing is our willingness to accommodate these an­xieties. Are we really only in it for the money?

As Monbiot said, we must ourselves argue for an appreciation of the “beauty of exploration.” The danger of course, given the dominance of the functionalist paradigm, is that we will be dismissed as fools, absent-minded profs and slacker researchers who don’t really work for a living. Is this any worse than having those who are supremely suspicious of academic work manage our work?

Alberta’s Health Minister Ron Liepert recently appointed a group of business leaders to sit as members of a health “superboard” in the province. Liepert, on nearly every occasion he speaks, reminds listeners he does not have a post-secondary education. With glee he stands as an example of class mobility without the need for anything else but what … hard work? Surely no accident. Horatio Alger novels aside, the message is that academic work is not real work. And if society is going to support such work then researchers and research better get to work.

If we are to do something about the emerging “business” model in research organization, funding, and so forth, many vantage points are available for us to cultivate, one of which is cultural. In the current paradigm of function, pragmatics, and practicality that we have ourselves accommodated and reproduced, such cultural resistance seems dysfunctional perhaps — a response that does not really address the needs at hand. I admit I don’t have a pragmatic and practical strategy to offer, but I have some time to think about it, and who knows?

Steve Ferzacca is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Lethbridge. His research includes the ethno­graphy of clinical encounters and the management of Type 2 diabetes in the United States and Indonesia. He is also editor of Medical Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies in Health and Illness. He can be reached at

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. They should be objective and on a political rather than a personal subject. A commentary is an opinion and not a “life story.” First person is not normally used. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publication. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime (