Dr Narelle Tunstall
Managing Editor, Graduate Research Impact
I’ve invented a new guessing game.
It goes a little something like this: ‘I spy with my little eye… a PhD completed in …’. I’m thinking of branding it ‘How many PhDs is that?’ or maybe it could be called ‘Spot the PhD’.
The concept is simple. You just cast your eyes over all the everyday objects and ‘stuff’ (could include any structures or materials) in your current range of vision and chose one – the typical start to I spy. And then you speculate: how many PhDs did it take to make that?
I don’t mean ‘make’ it, that’s what industry is for.
I mean, enabled it to be made.
It’s a game I started years ago. I think I first started playing this when I heard about a study revealing just how many kids don’t know where their food comes from (1 in 5!), but once they learn it has flow on effects beyond just healthier eating, including a better understanding of the environment. It got me thinking, just how many people don’t understand where their stuff really comes from and therefore, don’t understand how important research (of all kinds) is?
And thus, my game.
The rules of the game are this; you don’t actually have to know if a PhD was truly done (this is a game not a research project!). The aim is just to think about what kinds of research might have been done to deliver the selected everyday item into its current form of being. This should be a list of broad topics of research that someone could do a PhD on, rather than detailed project descriptions. The aim is to think up as many topics of research, as far back or as laterally relevant to the item as you can, that would have been necessary to create it. The person with the most varied list of possible PhD topics wins.
So, let’s play!
Right in front of me is a pot plant. The pot is a lovely Mr Kitly indoor self-watering plant pot. They’re the old 1987 Décor range (if you’re old enough to remember them) that’s been spruced up in fancy gentrified colours (‘original and exclusive’!).
They’re so pretty! But I digress…
So how many different PhDs do you think were needed to ‘create’ this plant pot?
This is the list I came up with:
These pots are made of plastic. So, there’s the chemical composition of the plastic – how to make various plastic polymers (in this case I’m guessing polycarbonate plastic). That’s the first general topic. Then understanding the different properties of plastics – moisture barriers, long term stability, flexibility etc. Probably quite a few there, but let’s just call that two. Maybe we can add a third for research to figure out which is best for planter pots specifically.
The plastic in these Mr Kitly pots is stated as BPA free and there’s been plenty of research into the effects of BPA generally (that’s 4) and there’s also research on BPA toxicity on plants specifically (5). There was probably research done on other chemical leaching and safety aspects of this particular plastic for growing plants too (so let’s make it 6).
Then there’s the colouring of the plastic (7), maybe we can even add another on perfecting colour consistency for ‘exclusive and original’ colours like these (8). I’m assuming these pots are made by injection moulding of the plastic (machines and apparatus technology – 9). And these pots are really lightweight and smooth with a fair bit of intricacy on the inside, so I’m adding another for perfecting injection moulding for complex forms (processes – 10).
How are you going?
Well it turns out the black coloured pots are made from recycled materials so I’m going to add another for the research on plastics recycling (11). Speaking of recycled materials, there’s the globally used labelling schemes that are included on the bottom of platics pots to tell you the type of plastic the product is made from – not actually if it can be recycled which some folks get confused with – but surely someone’s done research on this globally used labelling scheme? (that makes 12).
And I haven’t even got to the design yet!
These pots are designed to allow for self-watering. Originally referred to as ‘sub-irrigation containers’ I’m sure the original design work was done for some other reason than my lovely indoor styling, but that’s kind of my point. It might have been some long-ago agricultural research, that was borrowing on some other engineering research from long ago… about the capillary action or wicking that these pots use to self-water (now we’re up to 13 at a bare minimum). And I’m sure there’s research to understand the dimensions of the reservoir, and the size of the holes in the capillary system to maintain the necessary degree of soil moisture in different sized pots (14).
So, what is my point exactly?
Well, it’s this. My list represents huge bodies of knowledge that have been built up over time to give us a variety of lovely things. So much research, so many PhDs – that we can link to a plastic plant pot!
And I could go on. Because it’s not just science, there’s also the social science. I’m sure research on the benefits of indoor plants has not gone unnoticed by the makers and sellers of these pots…
We get to enjoy lovely things because someone did some research and someone created a thing and then someone else thought about how it could be used to do some other thing. On repeat.
Many of the innovations we enjoy, at least somewhere along the line, could be traced back to, or have been improved because of, publicly funded research.
How many people out of every 5 Australians do you think ever consider this?
And how many people out of every 5 Australians do you think understand the long-term impacts of the impending funding crisis in our universities that is set to severely hinder the research that universities can conduct?
I’d hazard a guess that it’s a lot less than the number of kids who didn’t know where butter or cheddar cheese came from.
Maybe someone could do a PhD on it??! (I’m not sure if I’m joking).
But in the meantime, maybe you could have a go at playing my game with your kids, or your in-laws, or your friends, and see how many PhDs it might have taken to make your favourite everyday item.
At the very least, remind yourself that the everyday things we enjoy have come about because of research that many of us can’t even imagine, and many more simply take for granted. (Did somebody say WiFi?)