The quote below comes from Don Norman’s recent column on The Research-Practice Gap, emphasis mine, and is the topic of this rumination. Bear with me as I attempt to navigate my thoughts and spew them in a digestible manner.
Great innovations can come from anywhere, any place. Usually they come about when a new technology is unleashed upon the world and inventors and technologists scurry to find something they can do with it. Most of these attempts fail, but a few stick. The researchers come aboard after the technology has been unleashed. But this is precisely when they can be most effective, because it is now that they can play Pasteur’s game, starting with a real need, figuring out what the scientific needs are, doing the science, and then feeding the results back to a practitioner community that is desperately awaiting the findings.
Norman’s idea of when and how the researcher comes into practice interests me because it seems so one-sided. Look at his sentence structure. “Researchers come aboard after technology has been unleashed,” and “feeding the results back to a practitioner community.” I agree with these statements but I feel that it is a reflexive relationship, that research has just as much to learn from practice as practice has to learn from research.
The point of Norman’s article is that there needs to be a “translational developer,” someone who can speak the researcher and practitioner lingo and translate for both parties so the relationship is a bit more productive. I agree with this statement. The part of the article I’d like to address is this idea of the “real need,” the researcher’s role in the time line of divining it, and the role of science in this research-practice divide.
How many times have researchers stumbled upon something while in pursuit of something else? I’ve gathered a few in the following list.
- Coca-Cola was originally researched and designed as an anti-drug, anti-depression, headache medicine
- Synthetic dyes came about when a young London chemist attempted to find an anti-malaria drug. This went on to inform immunology and chemotherapy.
- An improvement on existing pacemakers was created when the inventor was attempting to create a heart monitor.
- Viagra, the erectile dysfunction medicine, was originally the result of hypertension research
My point is that researchers don’t simply “come aboard” after the technology has been created, but are often the reason the technology was created in the first place. Recognizing alternative applications and uses for said technology, then, is where we address this idea of “need.” How do we determine what people need, versus what they want? And who are we to say that you “need” something versus “want” something as practitioners and researchers? How is telling someone about themselves not, in some way, manipulative? I cannot understand who someone is because I am not them. I have not lived their life, experienced what they experienced, learned what they have learned. So who am I, as a researcher and practitioner, to say “this is what you need?”
Like Norman said, we like to think we know the best way to design or perform scientific trials. But let’s face it, we’re all just drinking our respective Kool-aids and sticking to it. And that’s okay, because we don’t know any better way of doing it. The important thing, it seems to me, is in the questioning of existing methods and experimentation of new methods.
I must ask, Mr Norman, why is it so important that such areas as design, musical practice, etc, have “data” to support the “best way” of doing it? I just can’t get behind that idea. I think it is a continuing failure of such fields that they (we) listen to the data-mongerers. Sometimes all you can do is go on “faith.”
We cannot have data support everything because there are immeasurable occurrences in this world because guess what—more often than not, the things we do as people, as persons, do not make sense. We are emotional beings. We are “irrational” creatures. Claiming that I can describe the patient-doctor relationship through a scientifically-proven and data-supported method is piffle. Why? Because that relationship must be determined case-by-case. Who the doctor is in relation to the patient, and vice versa, will lead to different requirements, sensibilities, and sensitivities.
So yes, I agree that we need a “translational developer,” someone who can speak the lingo of both parties and act as an arbiter, of sorts. At the same time, I feel if both parties want the other to pay attention to what they are doing, the first step could be to stop complaining. If you want someone to listen to you, it pays to listen to them. Perhaps it’s trite, but hey, The Golden Rule (a.k.a. an ethic of reciprocity) seems to work more often than not for me, professionally and personally.
I found this related video, that discusses other target topics, yet abstracts out the idea of reciprocity and relationships which I think is applicable and admirable.