Why basic research matters I: Mark Green

This summer, I gave a keynote presentation that covered more than 30 years of my own research. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on the research results that have made an impact, particularly in industrial practice.

The field of computer science moves so quickly that you can observe the long-term impact of your research within your own lifetime.  I found that the my most significant long-term impacts came from my pure or curiosity-driven research.  I have done a lot of applied research, but its impact has been short-term and quickly forgotten.  In addition, it’s the results of the pure research that I now teach to undergraduate students, including in our introductory computer science course.  History demonstrates how pure and applied research are intertwined.

In the 1970s, I started working on the problem of automating the design of graphical user interfaces. This may seem like an applied problem now, but long before the introduction of the Mac OS and Microsoft Windows, it was viewed as relatively useless research of no practical value. I can still vividly remember industry leaders calling me another of those crazy university researchers and insisting that “no one would ever want to use a mouse with a computer.”

In 1986, I wrote a paper on the foundations of user-interface software. At the time, it was viewed as a very theoretical paper. The journal editor thought the paper was so theoretical that I had to move some of the material, theorems and proofs to a technical report before he would accept it. He told me that no one would read the paper.

In 2005, I returned to Canada to start a new computer science program at a new university. I prepared by reviewing the standard undergraduate computer science curriculum produced by the two leading professional societies in the area.  Much to my surprise, this paper was listed as one of the topics that all undergraduate computer science students should be familiar with.  In 20 years, it had gone from too theoretical for an academic journal to part of the undergraduate curriculum.

In the 1980s, I was part of a small group of researchers investigating a “curiosity” that was an offshoot of our main line of research.  We didn’t think it would amount to much, but we wrote a few papers on it.  Over time the main line of research died out, but this offshoot started to gain traction. It has now become a standard part of software development, which I teach in our first computer science course.

Why is this important? After presenting the topic, I then state that I was one of the people who developed it. For first year students this demystifies the whole research process.  Research isn’t done by people who are long dead, but by people just like them. We need to teach our students early that they are the innovators of the future. They can’t just follow along – they can and must lead.  I believe it helps to have this message delivered by someone who has been there, who can make the story real.

If we do not expose our undergraduate students to pure research, we are doing them a great disservice. In fast-paced fields like computer science the “applied” topics that we teach them now are often out of date shortly after they graduate.  To prepare them for the future we need to whet their appetite for curiosity-driven research that will empower them to continue to explore new and different ideas long after they graduate.

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Humanitarian or missionary?

Noreen Fagan | October 27, 2014

Andrea Paras is a professor at the University of Guelph who studies the relationship between religion and humanitarian work. She explores how the religious values of different humanitarian organizations affect their practices, and how Christians in Canadian faith-based organizations distinguish themselves between missionary and development work. “I am trying to question the idea that there is a strict separation between the religious and the secular,” says Paras. “It is something that is taken for granted by Western societies – the assumption that religion should be delegated to the private sphere.” Paras argues that going into a foreign country to deliver relief or assistance has strong historical roots in religious activity, and that religious actors have been involved with development work since it started. However, over the last 50 years the dynamics of humanitarian aid have changed, and so have the requirements for organizations interested in development work. For Canadian faith-based organizations to receive funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (formerly known as the Canadian International Development Agency or CIDA) they are required in to separate their development work from their religious mandate. This mandatory adherence to a secular format prompts Paras to question whether religious organizations can separate the two, and if they are really different from any other humanitarian organization. “I don’t think they are that separate,” says Paras. “Organizations buy into the secular fiction, but once they go down that road it can put them in tricky position. If they go too far away from their religious identities then their church-based constituencies start getting worried.” She says ultimately secular and the non-secular agencies may assume different appearances, but in humanitarian work they share a common set of values. “If you look at the values of dignity and humanity that Medecins Sans Frontiere talks about, they are not all that different from the values that would motivate a Christian or a Muslim organization, ” says Paras. She states these values are rooted in western values, which are in turn based on religious beliefs. But, as the Western world’s approach to development changed, the religious tenets gave way to a more humanistic set of values. “As Western society in general became more secular, the [development] organizations that emerged wanted to do the same kind of work, but not for religious reasons,” says Paras. In Canada, this shift from the religious to the secular became more apparent as the amount of humanitarian aid increased. Audiences started to understand the problems associated with development work. Hence, over the last 20 years agencies have steered away from the traditional paternalistic approach to development. The same fear of paternalism extends to faith-based organizations. “They [Canadian audiences] are putting pressure of church-based agencies to stay relevant and to minimize the negative effect of what they are doing,” says Paras. In order to minimize any negativity, religious organizations have become more self-reflexive about their own identities, and more concerned about staying relevant. By staying relevant, Paras means faith-based organizations have to prove they are equitable, non-discriminatory, and that they engage multiple-faith audiences in their work. While non-secular organizations may only be driven by humanistic values, faith-based agencies still have to find a balance between satisfying their church-based constituents and their role in development. They have to position themselves very carefully between secular donors and church-based audiences that might expect certain things of them. Finding the right balance can be tricky. “If they stay too close to their traditional mandates – and this is the case for a number of organizations in Canada that started off as traditional missionary sending agencies – they risk becoming extinct,” says Paras.    

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Araina Bond | October 24, 2014

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Cathy Majtenyi | October 22, 2014

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Trent University Staff | October 21, 2014

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