We don’t know what we don’t know

Butterflies and curiosity

In defense of research…I have often been a critic of millions of dollars being spent to understand the obvious. I remember a study some years ago announcing its findings that parental involvement in your child’s education increases the likelihood of success in the early years of school. Big surprise!

At that time, I was involved in organizing parents to improve public schools. It included parents and children reading together and pushing for better libraries in low and moderate income neighborhoods. Of course, parents reading with their children improved their success in school.

But, research is the adult tool to continue the journey of curiosity that we often leave behind from our childhood. If you remember your curiosity around touch and smell and sight and hearing, it often led to great surprises.  It was an exploration into the new and the unknown. As government cuts and cuts and cuts, research, and sometimes our curiosity, is the sacrificial lamb.

A scientist in England was researching the migration of butterflies and discovering some new patterns of how long they were staying and leaving different places. Butterflies migrate over long distances. This study had been going on for a number of years but not that long considering butterflies have been around for 40 to 50 million years. There were critics of the cost and value of this exploration. The scientist started using the cumulative data in a different way. Instead of focusing on the butterflies, he began to look at the environments that these beautiful insects were inhabiting. He began to see a correlation between changes in the weather and their travels.

The butterfly research opened a portal into the predicting of climate changes in different parts of the world, an unexpected outcome!

I have mostly been involved in social research with my good friend and colleague Dr. Anne Shlay, an amazing professor of sociology from Temple University in Philadelphia.  Housing to early childhood education to banking to development to immigration, she has taught me to think about the questions that need to be answered in order to bring about public policy which benefits all of the community and not just a select few.

Please don’t take this as a blanket support for research or planning over action. I recently sat in a city government office where the bureaucrat talked about another strategic plan to figure out how this new office would take on issues of poverty in Philadelphia. Well, of the 10 largest cities in the United States, Philadelphia has the highest percentage of people living below 50% of the federal poverty guidelines. Violence, dropouts, blighted housing, literacy, unemployment…just choose and take an action!

We just sometimes do not know where our journeys of curiosity will lead to.  Research provides us with an opportunity to walk down the road and discover and renew. The mysteries of the universe are awaiting us if we are open to exploring what we don’t know!


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