Those of us in research create things for many reasons. For some it is the sheer love of discovery, for others a kind of aesthetic journey for Truth. And for many it is mainly about that delicious feeling of striking out on one’s own, of finding some new path within the universe that has never before been traveled. I suspect it is usually a mix of all of these reasons, in one proportion or another.
But what about our clients — the rest of the world that uses our discoveries? What is it that motivates them, that draws them to drink from the well of some new creation? I’ve been thinking about this, and I think I can see three different kinds of motivations behind those who would make use of research, of new discoveries and methods of doing things.
First there are, for want of a better word, the capitalists — those who are in it for the money. These are people who are continually monitoring what the world wants — or at least what the world is willing to pay for — and are looking for a way to fulfill that need so that they can take a piece of the action. The contradictory thing about this group is that they can often help to make new discoveries possible by providing funding, but they may not care about the research itself on any intrinsic level. All discovery tends to become flattened to the one dimension of its monetary potential. This can create some odd misunderstandings between researcher and capitalist.
Second are the artists. These are the people who are perpetually in a dialog with beauty, with balance, with harmony, with bold statements about the human condition. For such people, a new research discovery is a beautiful agent for new aesthetic possibility, for human expression that takes our minds to new places.
Finally, there are the social activists. These are the people who are always asking the fundamental question “How can I make the world a better place? How can I reduce the suffering of the world’s poor, or diminish the vast inequities of wealth within society?”
Of course this is not a mutually exclusive set of traits. For example, the iPad — an integration of years of technological and design research by many people (not all of them at Apple Computer) — is a commercial creation, driven by the profit motive, with all of that motive’s attendant social power and baggage. Yet the iPad is also an object of aesthetic contemplation, a successful work of visual proportion and tactile responsiveness that is quite lovely and elegant in its way.
In an analogous vein, the fruits of some medical research can lead to great public good at the same that they are creating the potential for enormous corporate profit (as well as enormous financial risk). In this case, given the huge amount of capital that may be required to fund research in the first place, it’s not a choice between profit and helping the world, but rather a system in which one is entangled with the other.
I imagine there must be cases where the same research discovery leads to all three kinds of clientele — to the money makers, the artists and the social reformers, all at once. At the moment I can’t think of any such discoveries. But perhaps you might be able to think of one.