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When asking a peer or colleague why they are pursuing a certain research direction, I have often heard the answer "because it's fun". This bothers me: Shouldn't we all be capable of providing an honest narrative explaining why our chosen research direction is of value (other than personal pleasure)?

To clarify my question: I think it's fine if "fun" is an intrinsic motivation for choosing academia as a career, I also think this is necessary to success. I also don't think we should be forced into a certain definition of “useful research”. The concept of usefulness or value can differ per individuals. But shouldn't one have a strong explanation for the value of one's research other than one’s own enjoyment?

Note: I am working on fundamental research in quantum physics.

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    Hmmm. If it isn't fun, why would you want to spend your life at it. Unless you are searching for a vaccine for coronavirus and are just intent on saving the world. That one works too. – Buffy Apr 6 at 14:44
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    Why did I answer this question? Because it seemed fun :) – 6005 Apr 6 at 14:53
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    @Buffy: I think the problem is not that it isn't fun but if there is no other explanation. In the sense of "why is something funded which is fun for Mr. X" instead of "why is something funded which is fun for Mr. X and is of use (not necessarily monetary) to the world?" Or "why are crackpots who are having fun not paid"? – user111388 Apr 6 at 14:55
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    “Acceptable” in what context? For a grant proposal it wouldn’t be acceptable, but for a friend confiding in you what motivates them, why wouldn’t it be acceptable? And for, say, a newspaper interview, it may or may not be a reasonable thing to say depending on what is being discussed and the tone of the interview. Etc etc. You need to clarify the question to make it answerable. – Dan Romik Apr 6 at 16:41
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    Also, can you clarify what we’re supposed to make of you including the “ethics” tag? Are you implying that it may be unethical to be motivated by fun or to confess to such a motivation? – Dan Romik Apr 6 at 16:42
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There is a difference between the personal motivation of a person to work on a subject, and motivating why a subject is worth working on. We should always be able justify the later, both from an ethical and practical point of view ("because it is fun" will not convince anybody to pay you to do it).

In practice most researchers (certainly the successful ones), can provide a detailed motivation of why their work is relevant to the furtherment of their field and humanity as a whole.

However, this motivation might differ quite significantly from their personal reason(s) for wanting to work on the subject. In particular, they typically will have reasons for working on this specific thing, rather the long list of other things that are also worth doing. (In this category "because it's fun" is probably preferable over the much more cynical "because we can".)

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    I think this is a simple and highly effective answer. – GrayLiterature Apr 6 at 16:10
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    And there is value to enjoying the research that you are doing, as a researcher who enjoys their work will invest more time and care into it than one who would rather be doing something else. – Arcanist Lupus Apr 7 at 0:08
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    Researchers' personal motivations can also change over time. Often students get into a field because they find it exciting or have some naïve science-fiction ideas about what the field can accomplish. Later, they stay in the field because they've developed expertise and a small social network in the field and starting over would take too long. They would like to get funding and tenure and make a stable life for their family. In science, prestige is driven by reputation, so changing fields means a researcher has to give up the reputation that they've spent years building in the field. – WaterMolecule Apr 7 at 3:42
  • @WaterMolecule while you describe probably accurately what some people end up doing, it seems to me to be a very sad state of affairs. They should have the courage to start over doing something they find fun enough to motivate them rather than capitalise on their past. Otherwise they likely make poor colleagues/mentors. – chris Apr 7 at 7:53
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    My personal experience goes very much against your second statement. Most very successful researchers I have met were quite content with telling me that you should only do research because it's fun (as in challenging to the brain), and did not bother explaining why it should also be useful. In fact some of them strongly argued that what they were doing had no utility other than the pursuit of knowledge. – chris Apr 7 at 7:57
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When asking a peer or colleague why they are pursuing a certain research direction, I have often heard the answer "because it's fun". This bothers me: Shouldn't we all be capable of providing an honest narrative explaining why our chosen research direction is of value

What makes you think this is not an honest narrative? Why should I come up with some (possibly fabricated, ex post facto) justification for why I am doing my work, in a casual conversation, if the real answer is that I enjoy it? If I were asking this question I would appreciate an honest answer, and if "because it's fun" is honest, then that is helpful. You could proceed by prodding more into what aspects of this research in particular are enjoyable.

On the other hand, the last part of your statement, explaining why our chosen research direction is of value, is a totally different question. There is still some ambiguity about what this means (of value to the researcher? of value to society?), but I think this is more likely to lead to a discussion of the technical merits of the research, and what are the promising motivating applications.

But shouldn't one have a strong explanation for the value of one's research other than one’s own enjoyment?

It seems unlikely that you can be a successful researcher without having such an explanation; you are, indeed, forced to flesh out such arguments in detail in the introductions to papers and grant proposals. On the other hand, it is possible to not have such a strong explanation, particularly for early researchers (starting PhD) or senior researchers (e.g. already won all the awards in the field, now just pursuing some fun idea for its own sake).

So with respect to the question in your title,

Is “because it's fun” an acceptable justification for choosing a certain research path?

I think it has strange moral overtones; why would it be unacceptable? But I can see that you might want to hear in more detail about why it is fun, and separately from that, why it has value, and I agree these are useful details.

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  • The OP seems to imply some form of debt/duty which each person on this planet is born with, which compels him to do something "useful" with his time. - But this is not a universal truth, I also think it is fully ok to spend time on something because it is fun aka is fulfilling to your personal goals. – Falco Apr 7 at 8:46
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It seems to me that you are conflating between two separate questions here:

  1. “Why are you [the colleague] pursuing this research direction?”
  2. “Why is this a useful/important direction that will further scientific progress?”

If you ask question number 1, expect them to give an answer to question number 1 and not to question number 2. I don’t see why you should be bothered that they are giving an honest answer to your actual question. Of course, for some researchers the answer to question 2 might factor into question 1, and it’s completely valid to say you’re working on something because you feel it’s important. But fun is just as valid as an intrinsic motivator.

Now, if you ask question number 2 and they answer “because it’s fun”, it is reasonable to be concerned. Certainly a lot of things that are fun do not further scientific progress (playing video games, cooking, watching TV, ...). And certainly researchers need to be able to explain why what they’re working on is important if they want to be successful and for their research to make an impact. But it’s not reasonable to expect them to explain this without you making it clear that that’s what you want to know.

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This is a question where it helps to broaden your perspective beyond the sciences, and, in particular, I think it helps to compare the situation with creative activities in the arts.

Why do people write novels and paint paintings? Why do people write and produce operas and plays? Why do governments fund these activities? I don't think most people can say much more than that the activities are meaningful and enjoyable for both artist and audience. Could we try to clarify what we mean by 'meaningful'? Yes, but such clarifications don't seem to make anything more clear. Yet, even though we might not be able to quantify or point to or explain specific benefits of a particular piece of art, we tend to all agree there are benefits.

To be sure, the intended audience and maybe the nature of appreciation are different, but isn't scholarship also a kind of art?

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  • I like this answer a lot! – user1271772 Apr 7 at 3:13
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Shouldn't we all be capable of providing an honest narrative explaining why our chosen research direction is of value (other than personal pleasure)?

Perhaps, perhaps not. In any case, I'll bet they are capable of it. They don't seem to feel that you have earned it from them, though, and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree with them.

"Fun" is shorthand. I find Sudoku fun, but I would tear my skin off rather than pour the level of energy into Sudoku that I had to pour into my PhD. Other people find chess fun, enough to pour far more energy in it than that, yet colleges don't give people doctorates for their work playing chess.

Yet your peer is having enough fun to keep on with the program, and their supervisor -- who knows the field better than you do -- is willing to go along with it. So the value of the work, both intrinsic and extrinsic, has already been empirically validated. If you're looking for the details of either one, though, you're asking the wrong questions, demanding that they satisfy your doubts about the value of their efforts. "Why?" is a question for a funding committee, not for a cocktail party.

Some alternative suggestions: "What aspects of the field particularly appeal to you?" "What direction do you hope to move the field in?" "What other fields do you think might also benefit from your work?" Start with the assumption that they're not just wasting the world's oxygen, and work backwards from there.

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"Because it's fun" can be interpreted as "because it's interesting". And if something is interesting, it is worth investigating.

However, it seems to me a bit of a stretch to conclude that those peers/colleagues of yours are driven solely by enjoyment to do research based only on their vague response to a vague question. I'm sure they could have justified their research directions more thoroughly if they wanted to; but how many times have you begun to explain some aspect of your research to someone that was not working in the same field, only to see their eyes quickly glaze over followed with nods, "uh huh"s, and some other generic statements? And by "different field", I really mean "different subfield which may look to be the same field at first glance"; for example, in "quantum physics" you have the particle physicists, lattice people, theoreticians, experimentalists, etc... (with lots of specialisations in each of these, too!)

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As others pointed out, you are asking how to answer to two separate questions: why it matters to you, and why it matters. Just remember to always answer first the latter question: why it matters to the world, and only then why it matters to you. It will show you are a sensible person.

In more detail

Shouldn't we all be capable of providing an honest narrative explaining why our chosen research direction is of value (other than personal pleasure)?

Of course you are allowed to say you choose because it's fun. You would be crazy to get into a PhD - and especially quantum physics - if you don't find it "fun". If you want, knowing you choose quantum physics as it's fun for you is good, but not good enough. The person asking is likely to be interested not just if this is a topic that engages you, but also what specifically engages you as an indivudual. Is it the abstract thinking? Are they the quantum paradoxes and brain-twisters? Or the brilliant minds you are surrounded with in this field? Do you enjoy working on particuarly complex problems? Is it because you find mathematical abstractions captivating? I am sure you can elaborate "fun" along those directions, thus proving you can clearly define what fun is for you.

I also don't think we should be forced into a certain definition of “useful research”.

This is in my opinion a fundamental mistake, that is most pervasive in very abstract fields like yours. As you grow in your career, you will find yourself asking funding agencies thousands/hundreds of thousands/millions of to fund your projects. Governments have limited budgets and need to choose carefully. Governments fund fundamental science because it proved in the past to turn useful for everybody (example: particle physics ->world wide web/cancer therapy/medical diagnostic etc). If you think any research field should be funded because research is interesting, then you should get out of your department and realise that governments eveyrday need to decide whether to invest into reducing crime/homelesseness/unemployment...or some nuthead with a curious idea. And if you know why your field matters but can't phrase why your field is useful to the world, at some point your career will hit a wall.

Your field - and consequently funding into it - exists because it matters to society. You choose your field because you find it engaging. This is all great - now go on and figure out why :)

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