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The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations

by Ben Shneiderman
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016
320 pp. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 978-0-19-875883-9.

Reviewed by Ernest Edmonds
De Montfort University
Leicester, UK


Questions about the nature of research – how it is, how it might be, how it should be – abound in the Leonardo community. At this time, for example, Ken Friedman and Jack Ox are leading a publication project investigating The PhD in Art and Design. That project is looking at the role of practice in research, the significance of the artifact within research and as an outcome, the relationship between art/design research and, for example, scientific research, and so on. Thus, in this context, a book proposing a new approach to research by a pioneer of Human-Computer Interaction, and author of Leonardo's Laptop, a book that promoted the use of computers to support creativity, must be worth a read.

Shneiderman quotes Goethe, "Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do." Researchers in art and design will surely agree. But how? Two principles guide much of the argument of the book: Combining Applied and Basic Research (ABC) and Blending Science, Engineering and Design (SED). The fundamental proposition is that by somehow combining basic and applied research, we will be more successful at making advances that will enhance lives. To do this, Shneiderman argues, we need to adopt methods that enable this combination, encourage collaboration, and (given that the focus is essentially in the scientific domains) blend science, engineering, and design. The book presents recent history, very relevant case studies and examples to make its case. A good portion of the book presents well-founded advice.

We are reminded of the scientific paradigms that have shaped research funding and initiatives over the last century. The powerful argument that Thomas Kuhn made in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is cited as an important influence on the accepted narrative of scientific development and, hence, desirable research processes. However, policy makers and funders of research may not have noticed that Kuhn actually saw science as a social enterprise. Since then, historians of science have increasingly turned to social and anthropological methods to understand research. They have found that artisans and crafts people, for example, have often played an important part in scientific discovery. Applying and doing, as Goethe recommended, matters in advancing knowledge. The historians fundamentally back Shneiderman's conjecture.

Attitudes toward research, the relationships between basic and applied forms, differ around the world and whilst examples are taken, for example, from Europe the focus of the book is research in the USA. The book addresses policy makers as well as practitioners, so it was important to pay particular attention to making an argument that will be understood in Washington D.C. It is interesting to notice, though, that research in some countries is a little closer to Schneiderman's model than in others.

This book's ABC seems close to what is, in Australia, known as Strategic Basic Research, "work undertaken to acquire new knowledge directed into specified broad areas in the expectation of useful discoveries." On the one hand, it does not emphasize blue sky research that might by chance prove useful but, on the other hand, does not press for limited applied research that reaches for short-term goals. In the EU's funding programs Strategic Research Agendas are set and these agenda would probably find favor in the context of this book.

Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon was a grand version of the sort of goal that ABC research might aim at. Strategically we can see a big goal, have a mission, whilst in practice we pursue research programs that point in that direction without pretending to specifically hope to directly reach the goal. To solve big problems we need to build up a big bag of knowledge, much of it "basic," that can put us in the position to understand just what needs to be done: to understand exactly which detailed problems need to be solved.

So what about art and design? Well, of-course, Ben Shneiderman's book very directly and strongly brings design into the center of his proposed new research. To be specific, he advocates the incorporation of design research methods into his program and, equally, he argues for collaborative research teams. In fact collaboration is central to the argument as combining and blending approaches, methods and disciplines can hardly be done without it. So the New ABC of Research requires research collaboration between designers, scientists, and engineers, which I suspect will also feature in Friedman and Ox's project. Designers may have to read the advice given carefully and, at times, may have to interpret it in a way that fits their particular context, but they will certainly find it valuable.

So what about art? It does get a mention from time to time in this book – and it is clearly a respected discipline – but the idea of adding art research to the trio proposed in ABC is not articulated. However, the Leonardo community will, I think, see that the practice-based research that we are currently debating could easily be added with value. Art often explores design options and opportunities years before they are exploited in design itself. Art challenges our understanding of ourselves and of the world around us. It helps frame the very questions that design (and other) research investigates and, as Edward Tufte said in a passage quoted in the book, "The choice of problem is often the most important act of all...."

The New ABC of Research is book that should be read by anyone concerned with research and particularly by anyone with influence on policy or funding. It provides strong arguments and clear thinking about the value and the approach that should be taken in research that crosses boundaries, not least the research central to the journal, Leonardo.

Last Updated 2 September 2016

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