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So this museum geek walks into an academic research meeting…

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Earlier this month I was in London, participating in the Diversity, (In)equality and Differences workshop organized by the Trans-Atlantic Platform for Social Sciences and Humanities. As I shared in an earlier post, I was one of about twenty researchers, scholars, and funders from Europe and the Americas who spent two days identifying priorities for collaborative research. I don’t want to pre-empt my hosts (who still have a ton of work to do compiling and disseminating our feedback) by blogging the substance of our discussions, but I do want to share some self-discoveries I made during the workshop.
First: I was embarrassed to find I harbored a double standard when it comes to scientific research versus research in the social sciences and humanities. I believe in the fundamental importance of basic research in the sciences. Studying ant behavior? Fascinating. Documenting the myriad permutations of trilobites? Great stuff. It drives me nuts when politicians or policy makers mock work like this and tag it as wasteful spending. Applied research is great, but it builds on a vast pyramidal base of work that expands our understanding of how the world works. And I think that understanding the natural world is a valid end in and of itself.
Dr. Nigel Hughes performing “Lament for the Passing of the Trilobites.” No grant monies were used in the production of this video.
So I was surprised to find myself mentally devaluing basic research in the fields represented at the workshop. Maybe it’s because the acute problems identified by participants—violence against marginalized people, the death of political refugees and the surge in climate refugees, modern slavery and human trafficking—are so important I want to see research that helps craft solutions NOW. But one issue participants raised repeatedly in our time together was the need for funders to support “slow science”—long term, large scale studies that help us understand patterns and causality. They longed for the social science equivalent of the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed the health and lifestyle of over 5000 participants since 1948. Or the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, which has supported continuous ecological monitoring since 1955. This kind of research has no immediate application, but in the long term may be the only way to tease out how to create sustainable systems and address inequalities in health, education and employment.
Second, I caught myself thinking about inequality as something that could be measured in purely economic terms—perhaps because of the immense attention being given here in the U.S. to wealth inequity. So I was surprised and heartened to hear participants wrestling with how to measure equality in terms of people’s capacity to conceive of, pursue and achieve well-being. What do people need to have, do or be in order to live well? There are groups and individuals tackling this challenge—for example the Gross National Happiness Index of Bhutan, the Life Satisfaction Approach to valuing the environment, or the OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being, but we are far from having metrics that are universally valued and applied. While I worry that measures such as these may be misused to let governments off the hook when it comes to economic fairness, I whole heartedly approve of approaches that look at something more fundamentally important than wealth per se. (Also, I suspect that museums and other cultural organizations contribute more, and more meaningfully, to well-being than to economic parity.
Trailer for HAPPY, a feature documentary that ranges from the swamps of Louisiana to the slums of Calcutta in search of what makes people happy.
I admit to feeling a bit out of place in an academic research gathering, but the workshop gave me a renewed appreciation for the role museums play in bridging the gap between research and action—communicating research findings to the public and to policy makers, and driving the debate on how to turn knowledge into wisdom, and ensure wisdom informs our actions.  Maybe all gatherings of funders and researchers should have a museum practitioner or two in the room, to offer this practical perspective on the ultimate payoff for basic research.
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