There’s No Point Curing Mice

My wife Nancy gave a presentation at UQ’s research commercialisation workshop yesterday, recounting her experience with the Geriatric Anxiety Inventory. That’s what kicked off the thinking that led to yesterday’s post on creativity and commerce.

Right after I finished that post, we went to the workshop dinner, where Ian Frazer gave the keynote address, discussing his development of the vaccine for papillomavirus associated cancers.

At the end of his talk, he gave the best possible motivation for commercialising your creative ideas. He said:

There’s no point curing mice. They’re not even grateful.

He went on to say that if you are doing research that is important, you have to figure out a way to turn it into something real – otherwise all that creativity goes to waste.

This got me thinking about a conversation that I had with a PhD student that John and I are working with. After we talked about his project this week, I started sketching out what good business research looks like for me. It looks a bit like this:

For business research, there are three things that you have to consider:

  1. Is your research question interesting? There are different ways that you can define interesting: by importance to society, by how strongly it engages you, or by how many people are working in the same general area. Ideally, you should be doing work that is strong in all three of these.
  2. Is your research idea doable? There are lots of interesting questions that are actually impossible to research. In many cases, this reflects a measurement problem. Often, the things that we use as proxies for the concepts that we’re interested in don’t actually measure these concepts well. For example, think about all of the studies that use patent counts to measure innovation – a big mistake.

    Many ideas end up being a black box, not because researchers are lazy, but because the stuff inside the black box is really hard to measure.

  3. Does your research have a practical application? I once watched a colleague present his latest research findings to a group of business leaders. The first question was “how can we use these results?” His response was “That’s for you to figure out.” This is wrong. I believe that if you are doing business research, the results have to help business work better. If they don’t, you’re just curing mice, so why bother?

    Also, if you need to get access for firms to get data, the results need to have some kind of practical application.

If you look at the way that these three domains combine, you have four possible types of research:

  1. Research that is interesting and doable – this is Ivory Tower work. This is what my colleague was describing in his talk. His topic was interesting, and the research was doable, but there was no practical application. Too much academic research falls into this category.
  2. Research that is doable and practical – this is boring. Doable means you can measure something, and practical means that there is someone interested in the outcome. But if you’re not looking at an interesting question, there’s not much point, is there? There’s a lot of academic research in this category too – studies that incrementally extend someone else’s results.
  3. Research that is interesting and practical – this is frustrating. This is the category of the unfinished PhD thesis. The question is worth investigating, and people need the answer. But it’s impossible to operationalise the concepts. Many researchers wander into this sector – our PhD student accurately described it as “going down the rabbit hole.” This area is dangerous, because the temptation is to attack this with inadequate empirical tools. This leads to conclusions that aren’t actually supported by evidence.
  4. Research that is interesting, doable and practical – this is perfect! This is the sweet spot that we’re looking for. The challenge here is that you have to keep all three factors in mind as you develop your research questions. This is often difficult.

It’s actually really hard to come up with research ideas that are interesting, doable and practical. This is true for all creative work, really. Whether you are doing academic research, new product development, or art.

In all these domains, once you address a problem that is interesting, doable and practical, then you have a responsibility to get your results out to the widest possible audience. This is how you have an actual impact.

And if you’re not trying to have an impact, why do creative work at all? Creativity without impact is just curing mice. And there’s no point in just doing that.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

4 thoughts on “There’s No Point Curing Mice

  1. Tim,
    Yes, but … (am I detecting a strawman here: ” if you’re not trying to have an impact, why do creative work at all?”)
    In general, it is very hard to know before hand whether research will have impact and, if yes, how much. It might be something groundbreaking, a small but commendable improvement or simply something for the archive. After all, that’s why it is research; because we have no idea what it will lead to.
    There is also, of course, the time factor: when will your research have impact? Proximate (i.e. immediately relevant to business), ultimate (relevant to some future business that does not exist yet) or transcendent (impact will impact will be on something completely different that what you originally started working on).
    An example of the latter: “Back in the late 1800’s a Scottish researcher did his dissertation on the aplysia — a sea slug. His work sat on the shelves unread until the 20th century when the field of neuroscience needed an animal model to study neural activity. The aplysia has a simple nervous system with neurons that can be seen by the naked eye, so it became central to the emerging field, especially Kandel’s work.” (This is example is from the comment section of
    I have no qualm about the three questions as you pose them. I think everyone would love to do interesting, doable and practical research. The trouble is how to answer them. More often than not, the answer are dictated on the researcher (government guidelines to address the “research priorities” of the nation, a supevisor’s unhealthy affection for a particular empirical method, distorted impression of what counts as “interesting” to the general public, and so on)
    Perhaps it is best to see the dissertation not as a product (which may or may not be all of the above) but more a first tool in that tool kit that the researcher needs in her lifetime of interacting with (educating, advising, advocating) researchers, businesses and the public.

  2. Thanks Marco. Your last sentence is absolutely correct, and we’re definitely on the same page there.

    The issue that you raise about the answers being dictated to the researcher is an important one. Certainly, the metrics that are currently being used are pushing research in particular directions – and often away from “interesting.” This is something that we have to fight against.

    There are a few examples from the natural sciences of findings that sat on the shelf for years. More common, I think, are cases like Mendel’s, who was incredibly frustrated that no one was paying any attention to his work.

  3. Great sketch Tim, that’s a fantastic way to visually represent the dilemma of research
    The intersection of creativity and purpose is intriguing. The question which it presents to me is, if impact is our end goal, is the creative process unfettered?
    I guess it comes down to whether mice are really ungrateful or whether that is a convenient way to view them for medical researchers. So, mice are critical to proving the effectiveness of scientific research, anyone truly motivated by a desire to advance human health will justify the impact on lab mice.
    I often wonder if creativity from a business perspective has the same integrity as creative art. Many artists struggle with the dilemma of balancing creativity and commercial reality. My greatest respect is reserved for those individuals who can balance those conflicting tensions and continue to pursue an innovative path whilst still putting food on the table and living a fulfilling life.

  4. Those are excellent points Rohan – thanks! In the post before this I grappled a bit more with impact from the creative perspective. I’m not sure if art and business overlap that strongly – and that is the huge weakness in my approach in this post.

    Still, it’s a very interesting area to think about, and one I keep returning to. Your example of Tom Risley is interesting – I also have an extreme fondness for people that are able to remain innovative while also keeping themselves clothed and fed via their art.

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