Joe Mason

In the interest of good science, it is often believed that external influences should step back, that scientists should be free to perform research without interference. This is not to say that non-scientists should not take an interest in science, use scientific knowledge or commission scientific research. What it means is that scientists should be free to undertake research without pressure to obtain a particular kind of result. This is not always the case now, but should it be? Even if scientists had unlimited resources and were accountable to no one, science itself still wouldn’t be perfect. Scientists would still have agendas and would still seek to preserve their own interests. They want to satisfy these interests and feel that having to justify their research socioeconomically inhibits this because it influences the manner in which the research is undertaken.

Many would say that this is not fair. They would say that scientists aren’t paying for the research, in fact they’re getting paid, so should be answerable to those who are financing them. They should not be allowed to sit in their ivory towers and do as they please. These kinds of statement beg the question as to what scientists actually want. Are they heartless machines seeking only to explain, order and quantify the world? For sure, a part of science is driven by wonder; looking for, discovering and explaining amazing things. This is called basic research. Other science is motivated by a desire to shape our world; to help people, to make their lives easier. Either way, most scientists would agree a commitment to accuracy and rigour is essential and is achieved by them aiming to be ‘disinterested observers’.(Note  that this is not the same as an uninterested observer, as I am when forced to watch TOWIE).  It is this disinterestedness which scientists fear is threatened by requirements for socioeconomic justification. Scientists are less concerned about researching whatever they wish than with the research they conduct being affected by the requirements placed on it to be justifiable. The effects observed may not be as dire as corrupting or distorting results but may simply be that understanding is constrained to existing patterns and major advancements are not sought for fear of failure.

From this it follows that the concerns of scientists regarding the justification of their work in any terms, not just socioeconomic, have a strong dependency on who is judging the validity of the research. Who these people are varies with the type of funding and it is by appointing appropriate people that scientists’ concerns are addressed. Public funding involves large panels and committees of experts. The intention when setting these up is to find the most responsible investment of public money. What constitutes responsible investment varies but the  principal criterion considered is often the socioeconomic impact of the research.  Conversely, private research,  whether it be outsourced or conducted within a corporation, tends to involve less bureaucracy. This is due to a greater relative familiarity within the corporation with the research being proposed. It is hoped that this leads to a greater understanding of how the research relates to the criteria. However, private industries and corporations are normally more economically driven due to the need to bring a product to market. In both the public and private sectors obviously those who judge research funding have to honour their employers’ interests. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be doing their job. To do their job properly this loyalty to their employer has to be tempered with a deep appreciation of how science works. Without this, research would be driven so harshly by the demands placed upon that speculative, wondrous, fascinating but currently irrelevant research might never be conducted.

What does it look like to put this kind of basic research into socioeconomic terms? Well from the off it cannot possibly offer a product. That almost immediately eliminates the private sector. For sure there has been work done by IBM and the like in some areas but these are exceptions. Market economics dictate that corporations invest with economic criteria and economic criteria demand a product. What about socioeconomic criteria? Fortunately these define a product as being slightly more than  its sellable value. Let me be clear, socioeconomic criteria still demand a product but just because they demand a product does not mean the product is for sale. This is the crucial difference: the product of publicly-funded research can be broader than simple economics.

A very good example of socioeconomic impact would be the booming scientific instruments industry in the UK. We are a world leader in the production of scientific instruments. We got to this position having originally developed expertise in the instruments to do basic research. This is an industry that employs hundreds of people. Because of investment in basic research, these people have skilled, manufacturing jobs. Another product of basic research is its graduate skills base. UK universities are consistently ranked among the best in the world. If British graduates are globally recognised as being of excellent quality then they are able to work at a high level anywhere in the world, bringing wealth back with them and giving us a greater presence on the world stage.

Some scientists might consider that there are socioeconomic products of basic research not directly economically focussed preferable. This is because it allows a broader range of benefits that may be deemed as justification for funding. Unfortunately it does still force researchers to shape their research to have a particular product in mind. This raises issues when that product is considered to be something obscure such as education. When a researcher is employed or funded to do basic research as well as educate students in their field, their success or failure is no longer tied to their research. How much funding should they be given for equipment and the like? There is no profit/loss equation anymore. How can one researcher’s proposal be compared to another? How can you say the funding should go to one proposal over another’s if both are claiming their primary motivation as discovery and their socioeconomic product to be education? A solution might be to consider the potential impact the research may have on a field. If we are concerned that economic constraints may effect how research is conducted, how much greater would the effect be if scientist were obliged to make an impact on their field? We have seen this sort of thing in China recently with papers claiming massive success being shown to be false.

How could science be funded another way? If the public is to pay for it, as seems most appropriate for basic research, then how is research to be justified if not in socioeconomic terms? People want jobs and facilities and longer, more pleasant lives. They are not interested in paying for some boffin in a lab to think about particles all day if it’s not going to make their iPhone faster. Is this really the case? Have the public ever cared? What about the space race or the Higgs Boson? We’ve seen in the last few days how the Rosetta space probe has captured the public’s imagination by landing Philae on a comet. How much more would this happen if the UK played a leading role landing a human on Mars? Or solved nuclear fusion, saving the planet from global warming? There is a public demand and excitement around certain science that can and should be leveraged by the researchers involved in those fields.

As research moves from near market, economically-orientated goals towards more basic, less sellable research it becomes more difficult to justify to stakeholders. There is a valid fear among researchers that this leads to increased external influence upon research to produce a profit that may harm overall advancement in a field. This is the heart of the issue. Is science about making money or about discovery? As our country’s policies become ever more free market, capitalist and profitable can we hold onto the sanctity of science? Socioeconomic benefits offer an option for giving science a value. Whilst not simple, they allow a degree of comparison to be drawn between different research proposals based on how funding one type of research has previously affected society. They also limit the influence of near market demands on basic research by giving research wider, more long-term goals to benefit society in ways beyond the bottom line of GDP. Socioeconomic constraints, whilst useful have limits. The fundamental human excitement for discovery and adventure should never be ignored when considering research. This should always be considered and invested in. If we want to see science shape the next hundred years like it has done the last, then the reality of the human thirst for the unknown should be quenched with a series of earth-shaking projects to inspire this country and the wider world.


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