A CAUTIONARY TALE
Research gets a bad name these days, or rather the term is all too easily applied to anything you care to mention. Recently, I sat in on some final-year student crits at a London architecture school and lots of them tried to justify their work on the basis of research. Most of their presentations started with the phrase: 'my research shows that?' followed by catch-all phrases such as '?there are many similar buildings on the site'; '?tall buildings deal better with climate change'; or my favourite: '?timber cladding is the best solution'. Research, it seems, can justify anything.
However, the word 'research', loosely used and regularly abused, reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of scientific inquiry. It is not legitimate to say: 'I have researched this article and discovered that there are 11 paragraphs.' That is not research; that is 'observation'.
To say that one has researched a subject means that you have done a bit more than having read a press release, Googled a blog or cited a secondary source.
One of the biggest culprits is CABE. With seemingly nothing better to do than write interminable reports on a range of anodyne subjects, maybe it's no wonder that its research papers often get farmed out to more intellectually challenged interns or consultants.
In its booklet The Value of Public Space, CABE's research concludes that 'a walk in the park? has been proven to reduce the risk of a heart attack by 50 per cent'. Once this type of nonsense enters the mainstream, it is regularly quoted and used to justify all sorts. But what, for example, could it really mean? How long a walk? How steep?
What weather conditions?
How regularly? And what does it mean by 'it reduces heart attacks by 50 per cent'?
Was there a control sample that were refused exercise?
When you look into it, you find that the 'research' comes from a medical paper (called 'Effects of walking on coronary heart disease in elderly men: the Honolulu Heart Program', by AA Hakim. It studies men aged between 73 and 91 years old and its statistical findings could be argued to be of little relevance. However, the term 'research' adds legitimacy.
Reclaiming 'research' should be of importance to us all. Unfortunately, there's not much of it around these days, but I did come across two stories that sum up the best of genuine research aspiration.
Firstly, Hycrete is a corrosion-resistant concrete from America that reacts with metals in water, creating a hydrocarbon molecular chain that fills in the capillaries in the concrete, preventing absorption.
It also reacts with the metal rebars to coat their steel surface with a protective molecular layer around the metal reinforcement.
Theoretically, as a result of a detailed research programme, it has been suggested that it could eliminate the need for waterproofing membranes.
Test results show that chloride levels are so low as to be statistically negligible.
Secondly, Toyota's nonautomotive research division has developed the Kirsch Pink shrub, that is 30 per cent more effective than its parent shrub stock at absorbing harmful pollutants and reducing the urban 'heat-island effect', that causes high city temperatures due to hard surfaces that absorb light and heat.
It is a shame that whenever the words 'evidence shows' are uttered, one feels obliged to proceed with caution these days. Fortunately though, some organisations, like the two mentioned above, still feel obliged to maintain their research credibility.