The rigour vs relevance debate has raged in business schools since their inception. In the early days, most professors were retired or were very experienced executives whose role was to narrate war stories to students. Students found their education highly relevant and felt that the imparted skills could easily be applied to problems they faced in their work life. While the research undertaken and produced in business schools was limited, usually case studies, it was exceptionally applied and practical.
Troubled by the lack of rigour, a number of changes were brought about, starting with the Carnegie Institute of Technology that later became the fabled Graduate School of Industrial Administration (GSIA) at Carnegie Mellon. It offered the first Masters of Science degree in Business, distinct from Wharton, Harvard and Stanford, with the idea of making both education and research in business analytical and scientific.
What started as a trickle turned into a torrent, with rigorous education and research becoming the hallmark of most business schools since. However, rigour came at the cost of relevance, as research in business schools became more like basic research in science: discovery for discovery's sake, research for research's sake, having no purpose other than getting it published in the most venerable outlets possible.
The original architects of the rigour revolution: Simon, March and Cyert (who viewed rigour and relevance as the opposite sides of the same coin) were troubled by these developments and the disconnect between theory and practice that ensued as a result. The pendulum had certainly swung way too far out on the other side.
While the historical sequence of events might be different, the rift between rigour and relevance is prevalent across many disciplines, whether it be Medicine, Chemical and Physical Sciences, Engineering or Social Sciences. This rift in Medicine, for instance, is aptly captured by the sentiments of medical researchers, who playfully and pejoratively once called “The National Institutes of Health” the “National Institutes of Basic Biomedical Research”, for its penchant for funding basic research and the lack of communication between clinical and basic scientist.
This chasm between basic and applied research is labelled as the “valley of death” as many pioneering and research breakthroughs don’t result in the commensurate benefit for business and society, and can’t make the jump from the lab to commercial realities.
Translational research was conceptualised as a means of successfully navigating the abyss of the “valley of death” and a means of connecting basic and applied research. While the meaning of the term translational research is in dispute, many, at least in Medicine, widely believe a PubMed article in 1993 as the genesis of the term.
Regardless of its origins, translational research caught the imagination of many, as suddenly there was a way out for basic research conducted in labs to the real world where it could finally benefit society.
And now, as the focus turns to impact at universities, translational research becomes ever so more important. The Engagement and Impact Assessment (EI) in Australia and the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK are examples of impact assessment exercises conducted every couple of years to assess the impact that research at universities is making on business and society, or how good are universities at translating research.
Not to be left behind, business education networks, like AACSB and EQUIS, require business schools now to show impact of their research on business and society. It is no longer enough to be publishing in elite journals, it is equally important to show how that research translates into impact for society. No AACSB or EQUIS conference is complete without several sessions on impact, with business schools showcasing their “latest and greatest” impact case studies.
Rumours of some business schools valuing impact case studies equivalent to, or sometimes carrying even more weight than, publishing in an elite journal and rewarding academics accordingly are rampant. Policies for promotions, recruitment and salary were amended to give impact its due.
Finally, relevance had made a big comeback – at business schools it was the biggest story of this century, let alone this decade! Suddenly, the fortunes of many changed overnight – the ignored became the centrepiece, the blighted became the blessed. It did not matter whether the quality of research had been vetted, as long as there was some evidence of impact, it was enough.
Now the pendulum had swung the other way. EI and REF, for instance, require little to no evidence for the quality of research that underpins the case studies, and so does business education networks – “it is implicit,” would be the claim. Thankfully, relevance returned, though unfortunately, at the cost of rigour. In the process we have gone back to where we started from – pre-Carnegie days for business schools. Worse still the unintended consequences of EI and REF is that the wedge between rigour and relevance is being created ever so bigger and deeper.
The fundamental flaw in this approach is that research is viewed as a linear process in which rigorous basic research gets converted into more relevant and impactful applied projects through translational research. Basic and applied research, and their counterparts, rigour and relevance, lie at the opposite ends of the continuum, and the transfer of knowledge is assumed to be unidirectional.
However, there is a place where rigour, relevance and impact live together in harmony: it is called the Pasteur’s Quadrant – the holy grail for those who aspire for impact with rigour. Notice, it is called a quadrant, not a continuum, so it lies along two dimensions. There are no prizes for guessing, these two dimensions happen to be rigour and relevance.
The quadrant that scores high on both is termed the Pasteur’s Quadrant, originally coined by Donald Stokes in his book with the same title to honour Louis Pasteur. Pasteur was famous for working only on problems that had practical relevance, but equally famously, in the process of understanding these problems, rewriting the basic tenets of microbiology, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1907. Pasteur was the original 'pracademic' (practitioner +academic), one who believed in doing rigorous, impactful research.
The fallacious assumption of the dichotomy of rigour and relevance and the unidirectionality of knowledge is brought to bear in this one single simple example. And it is not very hard to find many such examples if you look for them.
The Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research (KI) at MIT brought together researchers from diverse backgrounds to bring interdisciplinary approaches to advancing the fight against cancer. Apart from saving millions of lives through its research, it is also home to five Nobel Prize winners. Featured twice in HBR, KI epitomises how impactful rigorous research should or could be undertaken.
One of its lead researchers, Bob Langer, is one of the most prolific and celebrated researchers in Engineering. He has an h-index of 230 but also has over 1100 patents to his name that has earned him the nickname of “Edison of Medicine”.
For Langer, impact means the number of people (or businesses) an idea (invention) can help: a simple yet a very powerful measure of impact. Langer’s prowess for technology innovation recently turned him into a billionaire (Yep! you read it right, a billionaire), a title he is uncomfortable with.
There are other examples at MIT and other universities (e.g. the University of Waterloo in Canada was certainly founded around the ideas of Pasteur’s Quadrant), but the important point to make here is that to throw rigour out for relevance is unnecessary and, in fact, counterproductive. And so are government policies that try separate basic and applied research on the basis of rigour and relevance. This dichotomy represented by Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) and EI – the research and impact assessments, for instance, in Australia is just one example of the same.
While viewing the research process as a quadrant versus a continuum might seem trivial, the policy ramification for managing research is profound. For one, the “valley of death” between basic and applied research does not exist anymore, rendering translational research and its many highly bureaucratic vehicles unnecessary.
Second, the lab-to-market time is shortened enormously, and in theory, should be instantaneous. Third, it is a pull rather than the commonly prevalent push or amplification strategy of industry engagement. Industry comes to universities willing to fund research, knowing the value of research to business and society. This is nirvana for the economy as the speed to market for innovations infinitely accelerates, creating jobs and leading to prosperity: the innovation ecosystem operates on steroids.
Ironically, more than twenty years back, Stokes made the same observations about the Australian research policy and framework, though his advice to ASTEC (which has become PMSEIC now) to view research differently fell on deaf ears.
I’ll be brave enough to conjecture that the lack of university-business engagement in Australia, for instance, which is symptomatic of the current day malaise that pervades the Australian research environment, is a direct outcome of not heeding to Stokes’ advice. Hopefully, COVID-19 will propel the government to do things differently this time round as focusing on the Pasteur’s Quadrant will help speed-up economic recovery and create new jobs.
As for universities and business schools, COVID-19 has brought to the fore that higher education (HE) has, just as in Australia, an image problem globally. The Australian government has gone out of its way to restrict universities from accessing the JobKeeper Payment scheme three times, and, from the face of it, the public sentiment has turned against universities.
The hundreds of unsupportive and negative comments from the public to the various op-eds in newspapers by HE leaders expounding the importance and the benefits of universities to the Australian economy is yet another indication of the disconnect between HE and its main stakeholder, the public.
Business schools and universities should play an important role in COVID-19 recovery, so this attitude towards HE is unfortunate though not surprising. It is time for universities to make a real difference in people’s lives globally. Else, impact is doomed to be another communication tool for universities to promote themselves, or a means for business school deans to impress each other at conferences.
As for researchers, in a post-COVID world our responsibility towards our stakeholders will increase. If you are serious about making an impact, use Langer’s litmus test for your research. If your idea (or research project) does not help anyone, it is perhaps not worth pursuing.
It is only then we’ll be able to make a genuine impact. For now, impact is just another academic game – only the rules are different, and it is played differently!
Ashish Sinha is senior research fellow at the Indian School of Business. He is currently on leave from UTS Business School where he is professor of marketing, and most recently the associate dean (research and development). He can be reached at [email protected]Do you have an idea for a story?
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