Research Impact

Should the sky be the limit?

Authored by: Simin Davoudi

The Routledge Handbook of Planning Research Methods

Print publication date:  November  2014
Online publication date:  August  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415727952
eBook ISBN: 9781315851884
Adobe ISBN: 9781317917038


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There is a scene in Hugh Whitemore’s play Breaking the code (1986) which all academics ought to read and recite every time they are asked to anticipate the practical worth of their research. It is about a job interview where a civil servant asks a young academic about his research and receives the following enthusiastic, yet rather confused, answer:

Hilbert thought there should be a single clearly defined method for deciding whether or not mathematical assertions were provable… I wanted to show that there can be no one method that will work for all questions… Eventually I conceived the idea of a machine.

(33–34) The baffled civil servant asks, “You actually built a machine?” to which the young academic replies, “No, no. It was a machine of the imagination”. The interviewer’s next question is emblem-atic of the dominant, albeit stereotypical, view of academics as people living in their ivory towers and using public money to do ‘blue sky’ research of no use to anyone. He asks,

What is the point of devising a machine that cannot be built in order to prove that there are certain mathematical statements that cannot be proved?… Is there any practical value in all this?

By now, you have probably guessed that the play is based on a true story; that the young academic was Alan Turing; that he was interviewed for the post of the leading cryptanalyst in the team at Bletchley Park; and, that he went on to break the Germans’ Enigma code, which influenced the date of the Normandy landings, shortened World War Two and saved countless lives. And, if that was not enough for ‘research impact’, he also built, almost by accident, the first electronic computer.

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