Quite a big question to answer… I’m motivated to have a stab at it this week for two reasons. First, I’ve just returned to the office after ten days away during which time I volunteered on a residential summer holiday for children with a range of moderate to severe learning difficulites. I’ve been volunteering on the holiday for seventeen years now, and have become a trustee of the charity who runs the week. Despite these years of experience, I am inevtiably knocked sideways by the strength of the emotions that I experience during the holiday, and by the way in which I question my work so profoundly in the aftermath. So this is a question I am asking myself a lot right now – what is research for? Or perhaps, what is the point of my doing what I do?
While I’ve been away, I’ve also been auto-tweeting a few recruitment requests, one of which is for a colleague’s Masters student’s project. The project is aiming to recruit adult participants who have autism for a study which is looking into age-related changes in facial expression recognition ability. A fellow-tweeter asked me…
@SueReviews I was wondering what for. What’s the benefit for Autistic ppl – what will happen with results?
— Kabie (@Kabieuk) August 4, 2013
My attempts to compose an adequate reply in fewer than 140 characters failed utterly, hence this blog.
In reference to the specific study, it is being overseen by a colleague and I don’t know the details. However if I had to hazard an informed guess, I would say that the justification for the study goes something like this. People with autism often find judging emotions from facial expressions challenging. Previous research is mixed, and has mostly focused on this skill in young adults. By looking at ability to evaluate emotional expressions across adulthood we can begin to determine whether this is a skill which continues to develop with long-term exposure over the lifespan, or whether it is resistant to change. This will in turn inform the provision of appropriate supports, such as training software like MindReading, to adults with autism.
Hopefully this justification seems fairly reasonable. However it does take a rather optimistic stance. With no slur whatsoever intended on this specific piece of research, Masters projects rarely recruit the numbers or have the methodological rigour to produce influential results. Even if they do, they may not end up being published in the academic domain and instead linger in dissertation form. So when it comes to this kind of project, we need to take a more realistic view about the potential benefit. For one, this student is learning essential research skills during her project. She may go on to apply these in a research career which provides beneficial outcomes to the participants she chooses to work with, or she might become a teacher or practitioner with a co-operative attitude to researchers, and a good understanding of the value of evidence-based practice. Either of these outcomes will have longer term positive effects on the wider community.
In addition, while this specific project might not be influential, it could provide the foundation for a more extensive piece of investigation in the same area. I am currently about to submit a new grant application with colleagues on job interview skills for people with autism, and this is inspired by a Masters dissertation from a few years back. This Masters project is contributing valuable pilot data and a review of the relevant literature both of which have significantly strengthened our new proposal.
Finally, I think there’s another belief here which has to be borne in mind – it is this that I cling to in my post-holiday blues to remind me that I’ve chosen the right career path. That is a belief simply in the value of research as a process. While research needs to be built on the published literarture, inspired by strong theoretical motivations and ideally have an applied outcome in view, we mustn’t use these strictures to supress investigation in its purest form. It is the nature of science that we do not know what the outcome will be. Who would have thought, for example, that Simon Baron-Cohen mucking about with a couple of puppets in 1985 would have had such a revolutionary effect on our understanding of autism and influenced research attention to this topic? Each published article may not have a direct beneficial effect, and may not produce the kinds of smiles and opportunities that I saw last week on the Oundle Mencap holiday, but we are building a tower of knowledge from these indivdual bricks and from the top we might be able to see the future.
See? I told you I was feeling emotional this week!