The future is ours to see – and to sculpt.


Sam Wilkinson, Applied Research & Innovation Lead

Research matters for the global challenges ahead.

Research can help us not only to envisage but to conscientiously shape the years to come – by generating insights and knowledge, by creating a foundation for innovation, action, progress. As the glossy brochure tells us, the world of our dreams awaits! What new treasures are out there, waiting to be found or created?

In the field of epistemology (the philosophy of the nature, origin and limits of human knowledge), we can talk about personal or shared knowledge – what an individual may know is a small piece of the totality of what is known. We often discover something new for ourselves, and possibly wonder if we’re the first.

Research as collective knowledge discovery

Since knowledge can be created and lost, shared and hoarded, it can be a challenge, in itself, to understand the importance or value of what we ourselves know. Academia concerns itself with moving from the boundaries of our own personal knowledge through to finding the limits of what is known collectively. As we move towards the alluring cutting edge in a particular field, the personal knowledge of a researcher becomes one and the same as the new collective ken – they have unlocked a new realm and contributed to the sum total of human knowledge.

The noble quest

In so doing, we are chipping away at or stepping into an unseen, seemingly endless new world that we were previously entirely ignorant of, as if mining deep underground or exploring the rainforest.

This common visual conceptualisation of research and definitive knowledge centred around the individual, is – on one hand – rather romantic (read: the noble quest) and – on the other – somehow mechanical (a reductionist inquiry uncovering new facts). It broadly centres the importance of objective knowledge over the subjective experience, playing down the significance of the people involved over the method and outcomes. The value comes from the new treasures yet to be found.

We are stepping into an unseen, endless new world that we were previously entirely ignorant of, as if mining deep underground or exploring the rainforest.

In practice, the process is a highly social one, and often more intersubjective than objective: both socially – at a research network level – and societally, with research as a product of and influence on the underlying cultural environment. Careers are made or lost around shifting tribal paradigms of agreed truths and models.

This social context gives life to our individual and collective values, determining where we prioritise our energy and how we go about doing that. The process, or ‘journey’, of collective knowledge discovery is, in itself, valuable socially, and to those involved there’s a positive growth mindset embedded in the pursuit which spreads beyond research circles and can drive change across society.

About a year ago, in the initial stages of developing our Applied Research and Innovation (ARI) team, I asked people where we should be focusing our research energies. Their responses often spoke to broader hopes and fears for the future and revealed the extent to which research discussions are influenced by broader human tendencies towards optimism and pessimism.

The colour and the shape

It seems natural to worry about the future while being optimistic, to want to steer away from the fears and towards the hopes. The decade ahead will be full of challenges in which research has a crucial role in imagining new ideas and finding new solutions. It feels important to consider which values and social dynamics would be important in this process, both in how we prioritise and approach them, and in what we project onto the problems and solutions.

I think research is, at its core, a result of our behavioural curiosity, our social relationships, our hopes, fears, and cultural values. These characteristics give colour to the process itself, making the journey exciting and transformative, and sculpting what we’re looking for – as well as what we find.

Further reading/listening:

Alexander Bird. The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions And Its Significance: An Essay Review Of The Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (2020).

Iain McGilchrist. The Master And His Emissary. Yale University Press, 2019.

Microsoft Research. Leading Labs With Dr. Jennifer Chayes. Podcast 2018.

Stuart Firestein. The Pursuit Of Ignorance. TedX lecture 2013.

Mark Carney. How We Get What We Value. BBC Reith lecture 2020.