Wednesday, June 07, 2006

ISCRAM: A Use-Inspired Basic Research (UIBR) Community

In 1997, Donald E. Stokes published a book that has been critical to my understanding of what I do (and why it's so hard to get to do):

Stokes, D. E. (1997). Pasteur's Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Brookings Institution Press.
In this book, Stokes discusses how, for historical and political reasons, the Western world has come to classify research along a linear spectrum ranging from basic to applied research. And how, in the US basic research has come to be the purview of universities and applied research that of industry.

He then argues that this view is wrong, that research, in practice, is driven by two orthogonal dimensions: a drive to achieve fundamental understanding and a drive to solve specific problems. This classification exposes two new categories of research, one of which, "use-inspired basic research," is of particular interest. Use-inspired basic research aims to solve particular problems (e.g., supporting problem-solving and decision-making in disaster management) but seeks to or must develop some more general understanding (e.g., of cognition and information use, and their implications for design of information systems) while doing so.
In my experience, one of the key difficulties to doing use-inspired basic research (UIBR) is that you are working across two domains: a domain of use (applied research) and a domain of fundamental understanding (basic research). This means that you have to understand and gain acceptance in both domains. However, if you present your work in UIBR terms (which is the way you have to think of it while working), the basic researchers don't get it because it's "too applied," while the applied researchers don't get it because it's "too theoretical." (Damned if you do, damned if you don't!) This, typically, means that you can only present half of your work in either type of venue, and, consequently, have to do twice as much work before you can publish any of it. (Unless you are fortunate enough to have a relevant UIBR community available.)

Now, of course, the truth is that many people do UIBR (this is one of Stokes' key points). Where do you think new academic disciplines come from? Bio-informatics is a highly successful recent example, but there are many others, when you think about it. The difficulty is finding a relevant UIBR community -- one where both domain of use and of basic research match your interests.

(Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management) is a UIBR community. Its domain of use is critical situation management (emergency and disaster management, humanitarian aid efforts, etc.). Its domain of basic research is information systems (design, development, deployment and use). Fortunately, for me, by nature a use-inspired basic researcher, this matches my interests exactly!


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