Monday, December 6, 2010

Autism: Researchers, Scientists and Science

Researchers and scientists are human. This means that despite their best efforts, they are shaped by their own biases and experiences. It also means they exist in a world of politics -- from university politics to the politics of professional organizations. And make no mistake about it, government and non-profit organizations make research funding decisions based on politics, as well.

Most scientists and researchers I know were drawn to research for personal reasons. For example, many cancer researchers are motivated because they lost friends or relatives to cancer. The goal is still altruistic, in my opinion, but there is something that nudges each of us interested in research to pursue specific questions.

I do want to clarify that not all researchers are scientists. Researchers in the humanities might borrow terms and techniques from the "hard sciences," but social science and general humanities research is often overtly political. This research is sometimes called "activist scholarship" and the "activist-researcher" declares his or her position and goals.

I am not a scientist; I am a pedagogical researcher. That means I research ways to improve education, from minor changes to new instructional techniques. My emphasis is on language instruction and students with special needs. There is clearly a personal connection, since I have been "disabled" since birth. I don't pretend my research isn't motivated by my experiences and my desire to change language education in our schools. Honestly, I make no claim to "science" -- but I do admit I might be better suited to the hard sciences at times.

I do my best to adhere to research standards, drawing from science. This means one develops a theory, tests it, publishes, and waits for others to retest the theory. I like quantitative data, especially data that are replicable by another researcher.
Scientific method, though a human "creation," is meant to help reduce the effects of personal biases and emotions during research. I have a great deal of "faith" (trust?) in scientific process, while I don't always have faith in how governments, non-profits, and corporations fund research.

Autism research is about as political as research can get. Sadly, no matter how idealistic and pure of heart a scientist or researcher, the funding and promotion of research is controlled by groups with agendas.

If you can't get funding as a researcher, obviously you move to other research topics. It doesn't matter if you're in the hard sciences or humanities, the reality is that you must get funding and you must publish research to be employed. In academia, you have to publish one or two papers a year, appear at conferences, et cetera, or you won't earn tenure. No tenure, no job security.

We should be asking which groups are funding research, supporting journals, and why. It isn't that I don't trust my colleagues -- I do -- but I do worry about a handful of powerful (and apparently obsessed) groups controlling the purse strings directly and indirectly. Something to consider, even if one tries to adhere to the ideal. Someone writes the grant checks or persuades politicians to support specific research priorities.

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