Why basic research matters II: John Sivell

Currently, we hear a lot about the value of research that focuses on a manifestly practical application. This argument seems to reflect the tradition of high-level technical education that began in the period of the Industrial Revolution, and plainly there is much to recommend it. But there is also a risk in presenting this perspective: we need to avoid underestimating the complex evolutionary development of core insights that can and do have a world-changing practical impact on daily life.

I work in Linguistics, a very interdisciplinary domain that is usually homed in the Humanities. This matters to me, because I sense a general undervaluation of Humanities research and education. I trust that that misperception will eventually fall back out of fashion.

I am concerned, however with a more lasting bias against encouraging the kind of non-linear, intellectually rich environment that can foster new ideas and discoveries and even lead to practical applications. New understandings emerge quite unexpectedly, and virtually never in a predictable way.

To get a sense of the value of pure intellectual exploration, consider the very old philosophical tradition to view the world in terms of contrasts. In the early part of the 20th Century, that underlying theme surfaced in the form of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s brilliantly simply concept that human language could be effectively explained as a system of contrasts, so that by focusing on langue (language as an abstract system) rather than parole (individual language codes) it would be possible to understand psycholinguistic and philosophical characteristics of communication that would not be remotely so apparent to scholars concentrating just on English, French, German, and so on. That leap forward has driven the development of thinking in Linguistics and in Communication Studies.

At about the middle of the century, American mathematician Claude Shannon advanced another type of system relying on opposites: this time, a mathematical theory of electronic communication in which patterns of contrast had the capacity to provide the redundancy necessary for overcoming interference from noise on the line. His work is one of the key foundations for the communications revolution that led to the digital world on which so many of us rely today.

Unquestionably, Shannon’s discovery is a veritable poster child for practically applicable research, and it might even be taken as a foil for Saussure’s fascinating but essentially impractical line of thinking.

Shannon himself does not mention Saussure, but he does refer admiringly to the work of Norbert Weiner on cybernetics. And semiotician N. Katherine Hayles links not only Weiner with Saussure, but also Saussure with Shannon. Of course, such a circuitous provenance definitely does not constitute a tightly-linked chain of direct influences, but perhaps this is exactly the point. While curiosity-based research, scholarly thinking, and education may or may not trigger any immediate practical outcome, the constant value of such efforts is that they flow into the exciting intellectual environment in which all sorts of thinkers and researchers operate.

It is evident that Saussure himself was simply curious about language; he clearly had no intention of presenting a theory that might be commercially profitable. But by the time Shannon – who did have commercial applications in mind – came onto the scene, Saussure’s theory was ‘in the air’: available to Shannon as a very useful concept. Shannon may not even have been aware of Saussure, but he surely was aware of Saussure’s ideas.

In fine, Shannon did not work in a bubble entirely isolated from other intellectuals. And that, surely, is the major take-away from this example. The distinction between what is or is not ‘useful’ or ‘practical’ research or education depends very much on how narrowly and superficially one decides to view the matter. Using a term from another perhaps ‘impractical’-looking linguist, Michael Halliday, it is a question of delicacy, the degree of finesse with which definitions are framed: too little delicacy, and everything flows into everything else and informative categorizations become impossible; but too much, and the sledgehammer of oversimplified precision fractures the very pattern one initially set out to clarify.


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The EcoGothic: When ghouls ...

Steve Asselin | October 28, 2016

The seasons are changing, summer is over, yet winter hasn’t quite begun. Nature is in flux. In this liminal time of autumn, the changing winds cause disorder blurring boundaries between life and death, the material and the spiritual. Halloween is upon us, where worlds usually kept separate are allowed to freely intermingle and the ghosts and goblins emerge from their crevices. Originating in harvest festivals of the Celts, Halloween began as a celebration marking the change of seasons. As it evolved, narratives about the conflation of worlds and the tumult of nature gained popularity. Thus, the stories we tell to frighten ourselves during this time of year have long been rooted in our relationship with nature, which becomes weird and threatening as All Hallows’ Eve approaches. This transformation of the familiar into something strange and haunted has been termed unheimlich by Gothic scholars, which literally means “unhomely”. Building upon this phenomenon, the term ecophobia has come to describe the alienation of humans from the environment, allowing us to behave in a dismissive or destructive manner. (The prefix, “eco”, is derived from the Greek word for “home”.) The recent emergence of the EcoGothic, then, studies the conjunction of horror and the environment. In my classes, I encourage students to think about this intersection in the fiction they read, and in the way they see nature depicted in their everyday lives. My research investigates the way this fear of nature manifests in Gothic and disaster fiction, where nature becomes hostile, and, in the case of Gothic, supernatural entities, or at least the suggestion of them, are present. The earliest works of Gothic fiction were set in remote locations: isolated castles, estates, and monasteries. This isolation increased the inherent suspense of the narrative, but so did the setting—dark forests, or cavern-strewn hills and mountains—that typically surrounded these lonely outposts. Such environments represented wild and savage nature where fear of the unknown lurked in untrammeled territories, whether they were bandits, beasts, or the supernatural beings that came to haunt Gothic fiction. These now classic creatures were directly tied to our own anxieties over our place in the natural world. The werewolf, for example, represents the fear of our primal, bestial selves—the underlying recognition that, after all, we’re just animals guided by animal instincts. Vampires are strongly associated with immortality and their ability to turn into animals like wolves and bats, or into weather phenomena like mist. They represent a threat to our perceived place as a dominant species. In feeding on our blood, vampires are higher on the food chain than we are, the true apex predator. Their immortality flirts with our fear and obsession with death. Even the current zombie craze in the media functions as a thought exercise about how we would survive if we stripped away the veneer of civilization and plunged back into a state of nature, competing with one another and always in danger of being eaten. Conversely, Gothic fiction has also helped us make sense of our relationship with the natural world. A prime example of this is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a book about the usurpation of nature, as a being is brought to life from dead body parts thanks to industry and technology, which were radically altering the environment of Europe in the 1800s. Frankenstein created the myth of the mad scientist that remains with us in contemporary clashes over humanity, nature, and technology. In today’s world, environmentalists label genetically modified organisms as “Frankenfoods,” hybrid entities which, like the eponymous monster, might come back to haunt us. Likewise, through centuries of industrial activity, we have created our own version of Frankenstein’s Monster—climate change, making our global environment harder to predict, more extreme and more violent. Understanding and overcoming ecophobia is key if we are to halt and reverse the damage done to our environment. We must come to see ourselves as intrinsically part of nature, rather than alienated from it. Steve Asselin is a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature in Queen’s University. His areas of study include the long 19th century, disaster fiction, ecocriticism, speculative fiction, polar studies, and the Gothic. He is also the published author of over a dozen speculative short stories in a number of independent press venues, including his own horror fiction.  

University of Guelph researcher ...

Yvonne Robertson | October 14, 2016

Out of the 4.5 kilograms of food the average southwestern Ontario household wastes per week, 64% is avoidable. Items such as egg shells, coffee grinds, and banana peels make up the other 36%. “That’s atrocious,” says Kelly Hodgins, University of Guelph researcher and project coordinator of Feeding 9 Billion. “But, it also means there’s room for improvement. It leaves me inspired to do outreach and education because a little bit more awareness contributes to less food waste.” Hodgins participated in a Partners in Research Live Event Wednesday afternoon and is gearing up for a second one next Tuesday for Grades 7-12. During the webinar, targeting K-Grade 6, Hodgins explained the impact on the earth as food travels from farm to table to (oftentimes) garbage bin. Partners in Research aims to connect and engage youth from K-12 with researchers to create a greater awareness of important research across Canada. On Wednesday’s event, about 30 classrooms registered and students asked questions through live chat. “For kids, there’s often an invisibility cloak surrounding what happens to food before it gets to them and what happens afterwards,” she says. “I really want students to be aware of the amount of energy and resources used, that food doesn’t just appear, but there’s a whole system that’s intensive for the earth. It’s just bad to throw it out after all that. “It’s incredibly important for kids to have this understanding early on, it affects their future actions. It was really exciting to do. The chat box kept flashing; they had a whole bunch of questions and were really engaged.” Hodgins’ own fascination with food waste and security began as a child growing up on a dairy farm in B.C. She now works with the food waste research team at the University of Guelph—currently leading the research in Canada—focusing primarily on household food waste, why it happens, and how it can be avoided. The cost of learned behaviours The team takes a sociological approach to uncover the behaviours and beliefs surrounding food wasting habits through regular waste audits and studies. “Some of these behaviours include buying too much, being persuaded by advertising to by double when you really only need one of something, having big fridges and forgetting about stuff,” says Hodgins. “We also tend to have a skewed ability to predict how much we’re going to eat during the week. We often do this big Saturday shop, then our busy lives get in the way and we order take out.” The research team has discovered that people tend to waste less food if they’ve been forced to have a higher level of food awareness, either because they have a special diet, an allergy, or choose to eat organically. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most wasteful processes is the production of meat, due to the amount of resources involved, while the least wasteful is backyard gardens. “I personally feel bad about the waste of high water content products, like lettuce, tomatoes, and watermelons,” says Hodgins. “We’re shipping them from drought-stricken regions like California, and then wasting the water. It seems ludicrous.” Combatting food waste on a global level Hodgins highlighted some of the global initiatives in place to address worldwide food waste such as the U.K.’s Love Food Hate Waste program, which collects data and designs interventions targeting the household level of the supply chain. The program is already seeing a shift in food waste and behaviours, and has recently opened a chapter in Vancouver. Policy changes in Canada include a two-day workshop in Guelph bringing together stakeholders from every aspect of the food value chain such as waste management, the city, policymakers, farmers, retail owners, and processes. The workshop looked at the existing challenges and barriers, and proposed an agenda on how to move forward. “That was a really powerful, great initiative,” says Hodgins. “Typically, these conversations have been happening in silos, where you have a farmer saying they can’t do something because of the retailer policy, or a retailer saying they can’t because of another policy, and so on. This brought everyone together, identified gaps, and room for change.” Many initiatives involve redefining food waste—such as Feeding the 5000 that involves serving the public a free meal out of food that would have been thrown out—and redirecting food once it’s considered waste. “If you eat it, that’s best, but if it’s given to an animal, that’s second best,” Hodgins says. “Then there’s the compost. The worst is the landfill.” As for other grassroots initiatives, such as the freegan movement or the 100-mile diet, Hodgins follows the everything-in-moderation principle. “If you’re buying local, it depends on why you’re doing it,” she says. “Sometimes it’s more environmentally intensive to grow produce locally than it is to ship it from somewhere where it’s in growing season. There’s absolutely merit in supporting your local farmer and economy, but you can follow your love and only buy things in season here. You can get really excited about asparagus season or when the first strawberries are ready in June. Get more connected to the seasonality of food. Lots of places are now promoting this, such as pumpkin season, for example.” Hodgins co-teaches the ICON Transdisciplinary Classroom at the university—an interdisciplinary course where students develop and implement innovative ideas about food security. She will be taking part in Partners in Research’s next live event on Tuesday, October 18 geared to students between Grades 7 and 12. To register for this event, visit the registration page.

Researchers uncover Canada’s ...

Yvonne Robertson | October 6, 2016

One mention of the Group of Seven and the mind immediately conjures up bold colours and dynamic paintings of sublime northern landscapes. But what about the Beaver Hall Group? You’re probably not the only one hearing crickets. Carleton University’s Brian Foss, art history professor and director of the School for Studies in Art and Culture, is hoping to close the chasm between the knowledge of the two Canadian artist groups, and provide further insight into Canada’s rich cultural history. Foss spent the bulk of the last decade researching the Beaver Hall Group, an early 1920s Montreal-based group of artists, equal parts Francophone and Anglophone, male and female (during a time when to be considered a professional artist one had to be a man). “The Beaver Hall Group was thus a broadly inclusive collection of artists,” Foss told FASSinate (page 6), Carleton’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences annual magazine. “Unlike the Group of Seven, they encouraged women artists as members of their network….The group also featured both Francophone and Anglophone artists, which helped bridge a divided Montreal scene.” Foss’ research culminated in an exhibit—the first major exhibit to feature the Beaver Hall Group—at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts last October. The exhibit received the Canadian Museum Association’s Award for Outstanding Achievement, and its accompanying catalogue received the 2016 Melva J. Dwyer Award. It’s currently on a cross country tour, completing a stop at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, and continuing on to the Art Gallery of Windsor as well as the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. The artists of the Beaver Hall Group took modern approaches to colour, draftsmanship, and composition in their work, depicting contemporary individuals, rural life, and populated urbanized cityscapes. Their paintings provide historical context and insight into 1920s Montreal and Canadian cities, illustrating a complex and multi-faceted nature of Canadian modern art. “The Beaver Hall group offers an alternative, progressive vision of what Canadian modern art can be,” Foss said. The catalogue contains six substantial essays: dealing with the social and artistic contexts within which the group was formed; the ways in which the group was later incorrectly interpreted as being a collection of women artists only; the influence of the members’ artistic training; Montreal’s rich art, theatre, music, film, and dance scene during the Beaver years; the ways in which the artists explored modernist concerns in their choices of subjects and styles; and the complex roles occupied by women artists in the Beaver Hall Group and in the larger Canadian art world. Illustrating Hamilton's history For his examination of a period in Canadian history, Robert Kristofferson delved into a more recent past. The Wilfrid Laurier University (Brantford) professor took Hamilton’s labour strikes of 1946 and transformed them into an action-packed graphic novel: Showdown! Making Modern Unions, co-written with Simon Orpana. Officially launched last month, the book brings to life the steel city strikes where 12,000 workers fought for job security, better wages, equitable treatment, and union recognition. “The reader is an active participant in the story more so than with other forms of history,” Kristofferson told the university. “Readers have to engage with the book and fill in for themselves what happens within and between the frames.” In Showdown!, there’s a book within a book midway through, as guest artist Matt McInnes recreated a photo album that belonged to Tom McClure, president of the United Steel Workers Local 1005 in 1945. The book is part of a SSHRC Connections knowledge mobilization grant. Kristofferson also developed content for WorkersCity, an app that offers walking tours of Hamilton’s labour history that includes over 100 sites. “The book serves to highlight the degree to which unions can bring dignity and respect to workplaces in the past and in the present,” said Kristofferson. See the first and second parts of our arts and culture series: “Using performance art to create social change” and “Transforming research into art”.

Transforming research into art

Yvonne Robertson | September 30, 2016

For her Master of Social Work thesis on knowledge of sexual consent, researcher Eleanor McGrath conducted a survey with 10 yes-or-no questions based on Canadian consent law. The average score was 57 per cent. It prompted the Wilfrid Laurier University grad student to create an exhibit from her research called #consentED, showing at the school’s campus library main floor until Dec. 21. #consentED, a collaboration between McGrath and Karly Rath, co-founder of Advocates for a Student Culture of Consent, is one of a handful of recent exhibits at university campuses using the visual arts to explore sexism, gender inequalities, and gender-based violence. “There’s a lot of gaps in people’s knowledge,” McGrath told The Record last week. The interactive exhibit consists of 12 panels asking viewers questions about consent law before revealing the correct answer and providing facts on sexual assault. McGrath and Rath hope the exhibit creates a conversation surrounding consent, how it affects everyone, and how to combat rape culture. A fellow Laurier researcher also used a recent exhibit to display her research on sexism in science. Eden Hennessey, working on her PhD in social psychology, is studying the sexism women experience in science compared to other fields, and the consequences this has on the field. Her exhibit, #DistractinglyHonest, is a series of photographs highlighting successes and challenges women tend to face in the traditionally male-dominated realm of science. Each photo is accompanied by information showing Hennessey’s evidence-based research. Hennessey wanted to evoke emotional responses from viewers to illustrate how pervasive sexism is in science, how an individual’s experiences are not isolated incidents, and how without women’s voices, important input and perspectives are missed. “If we don’t have women’s voices in those conversations, we’re going to miss something,” she told The Record. Similarly, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Carleton University recognized an exhibit honouring the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirited People, in its annual magazine, FASSinate (page 26). The university art gallery hosted “Walking with Our Sisters”, a three-week art installation last September. The exhibit was a collaborative effort that took four days to install. It transformed a room in the gallery into an installation with over 1,800 pairs of moccasin vamps—created by people across North America responding to project founder and researcher Christi Belcourt’s public call. The vamps were arranged along the perimeter of the room and into a canoe-formation down the centre. Cedar boughs were laid underneath the shoes and on the walls. The installation raised awareness of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirited People, and enabled a diverse range of people to come together to honour them. See the first part of our arts and culture series: "Using performance art to create social change".

Using performance art to ...

Yvonne Robertson | September 27, 2016

Many of us have witnessed music’s transformative power on a personal level. But a University of Guelph researcher is taking this power to the next level. Ajay Heblé explores improvised music's, particularly jazz's, ability to build stronger communities and cultures. His research shows how players communicate with each other by listening, reacting, and adapting to one another during the performance, despite cultural differences. Heblé is one of several Ontario researchers using the arts to create social or political change. As a lead up to Toronto’s Nuit Blanche this Saturday night, we’re taking a look at what some of these professors and artists have been producing. Heblé's focus is on aggrieved communities, particularly marginalized youth and people with conditions such as autism or Down’s Syndrome that hinder verbal expression. One such example is his recording of 16-year-old Katy, whose autism makes it nearly impossible for her to speak. Through improvised jazz and the ability to express herself in the moment, she found a new expressive power, and a way to communicate and listen to others. Listening, reacting, and multi-directional communication in improv empowers people and fosters solidarity. Heblé’s work burgeoned into an international network of researchers, community organizations, students, and musicians bringing together academic research, creative practice, and community engagement—leading him to receive a $2.5-million grant from SSHRC in 2013 and be shortlisted for SSHRC's 2016 Impact Awards. In a similar vein, two researchers from Laurentian University have been using poetry and music to bridge gaps—in this case, the one between the arts and sciences, stimulating intellectual surprise and unintended results. Where are they doing this? Two thousand metres underground, of course. Thierry Bissonnette and Robert Lemay, in partnership with the underground neutrino research laboratory, SNOLAB, plan to create a literary composition and a contemporary musical one 2,000 metres below. As part of the first phase of the project, the researchers made their initial descent in July to analyze the sound recording possibilities of the space. Once the compositions are recorded, they will be issued digitally on iTunes. “I believe in the power of metaphor and free association to give rise to new contexts of understanding,” Bissonnette told the university. “The interest for the core elements and the obscure parts of the universe is shared by poetry and music, as well as physics. Even if their objects are different, there is a human, mental bridge where they touch.” Rounding up the list of performance artists-cum-researchers is Sean Devlin, who takes up residency at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus as the school’s activist-in-residence this year. Devlin, a filmmaker and comedian, will create a Yes Lab on campus for the Digital Media and Journalism (DMJ) program. The lab brings together students, faculty, an activist group or an NGO, members of the local community, and The Yes Men to develop effective and educational activist projects. “The Yes Lab exists to support people wanting to experiment with bold, creative action,” Devlin told the university. “Laurier’s residency program is breaking new ground among Canadian academic institutions, so this collaboration seems like a natural fit. I am very excited to see what sort of projects the students develop through this process.” The Yes Men use activism to raise awareness for important social and environmental issues. In bringing Devlin to Laurier, the university strives to provide students with real-world experience in advancing a cause they care deeply about, according to a DMJ program's professor Abby Goodrum. The first Yes Lab workshop will run in October, focusing on brainstorming project ideas, developing action plans, and establishing working groups. A follow up workshop will then be held in November. See the second part of our arts and culture series: "Transforming research into art".  
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