Should Scientists have to Justify Their Research in Terms of its Socioeconomic Impact?

James Barr

Google defines socioeconomic as “relating to or concerned with the interaction of social and economic factors”.  These factors might include something as trivial as increasing the mobile data speeds or to more profound implications, for example, new medical treatments. The meaning of economic factor is fairly obvious, but it’s almost impossible to estimate. Hopefully it is apparent why this is the case.

I believe this issue falls under a wider question: ‘how do we prioritise public funded research?’ Taxpayers look for either a financial or social return for their money. As a result, there is a sense of pressure placed on scientists to predict the socioeconomic impact of their research. Whether these predictions are a good method of prioritising research is one matter, and whether it’s even possible to predict the socioeconomic impact is another.

When Einstein wrote his laws of general relativity, not even his highly-regarded, creative mind could have predicted the socioeconomic contribution of GPS. Townes and co. probably couldn’t have foreseen the vast domestic uses of lasers. Does this mean that we should have cut their funding and thus their creativity? By making scientists justify the socioeconomic impact of their research, we are only considering the short-term return. Science is the exploration and pursuit of understanding the unknown; this is part of the romance of science, but it is this very reason that it’s impossible to predict how research might affect society. It could be that the socioeconomic impact of the research comes from indirect forms. It could be that this research had inspired someone into science, contributed to a later discovery or contributed to a completely separate field of research. The consequence of any research is unknown.

I would like to introduce the people behind the scientific research – the academics. Some, and certainly not all, are involved with teaching to the highest academic standards. It’s through their teaching that they make the largest and most obvious socioeconomic contribution. If we are not careful and only focus on the more socioeconomically promising research, we could lose some of the best teachers. Without these teachers, we will produce inferior graduates, which in turn contribute less to society. It’s through the graduates that academics make their contributions. Let’s assume we can accurately predict all of the possible socioeconomic contributions from a piece of research; we find that a particular piece has no contribution in terms of scientific development. However, through researching, that individual gains skills which they otherwise wouldn’t have. These skills could improve their subsequent contributions, or they pass on their skills to graduates, which consequently improve their contributions. Is that piece of research worth being conducted?

With increasing bureaucracy and short sighted party-political policy, it is easy to see that funding might become focused on these socioeconomic factors. Research shouldn’t be restricted to the socioeconomically promising proposals. Research is a training tool, the skills gained are indispensable. History has shown some of the greatest discoveries and leaps forward in scientific development can come from seemingly trivial research.

Should Scientists have to Justify Their Research in Terms of its Socioeconomic Impact?

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