Should scientists have to justify their research in terms of its socioeconomic impact?

Duncan Davis

The group of UK research councils (RCUK) requires that scientists applying for research grants take into consideration the potential economic and social impact of their particular research proposal. Impact on “economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom”, “effectiveness of public services and policy” and “enhancement of the quality of life and creative output of the nation” are to be taken into account.

This may seem a reasonable approach. The government invests a limited pool of public funds (although the total amount can be varied greatly depending on policy) into research, so the urge to target this funding to get the best “value for money” is understandable. Why shouldn’t scientists factor in expectations of social outcomes into their research proposals?

Serendipity

This logic relies on the ability of scientists to predict what their research will lead to, and surely, they are the best people to make this judgement. However, even with all their expertise in their fields, history has shown scientists to be incapable of this.

Countless advances in research have come about accidentally or unexpectedly.  These have led to a huge number of useful applications which have benefited society. Lasers, x-rays, antibiotics, transistors, photovoltaics and a huge number of other fields and applications have been unexpected outcomes of basic research. This basic research was undertaken out of scientific curiosity, not because of an expectation of beneficial applications.

At the very least, this shows that scientists don’t need to think about impact to make influential discoveries. If scientists are indeed incapable of predicting impacts, this part of the application process degenerates to pointless bureaucracy. Research proposals are, then, funded on nothing more than a contest of speculative fiction writing. It’s worrying that important research may not be undertaken due to the inability of researchers to jump through the required hoops.

Positive Externalities

Research has impacts in terms of furthering the field and leading to applications, but these aren’t its only beneficial outcomes. Ignoring these more direct products, the process of research itself is good for society.

In discussing impact assessments, James Barr wrote: “It’s through [academics’] 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”.

Research is inextricably tied to teaching. This builds analytical skills, and knowledge in students that can later be applied, professionally or otherwise, to the benefit of society. Arguably, this education will be of higher quality if academics are undertaking research out of curiosity, rather than studying topics that they’re less passionate about in order to fulfil impact criteria.

Skilled individuals are a by-product of research but can’t be taken into account as an impact of the research. In economics, these are externalities: outcomes of activity that aren’t factored into mechanisms of valuation. Pollution is an example of a negative externality of various industrial processes. It incurs costs in the economy but these aren’t immediately obvious and aren’t felt only by those who benefit from the processes. Similarly, education is a positive externality of research. The benefits are felt by wider society in ways unrelated to any scientific advances actually made.

Flawed Goals

It could be argued that the positive side effects of general research are roughly the same for research into any topic, so it still makes sense to judge the research outcomes against a values system to determine their social worth. The values used, however, are deeply problematic.

The emphasis on “economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom” is tied up with pro-market and nationalist ideology. Competitiveness as an idea requires some sort of exclusivity and is only concerned with the relative performance of the UK in the global economy. This implies that research outcomes should further the position of the UK to the detriment of other countries. Cooperation is an important principle of science and society as a whole, but it is in contradiction with the principle of competition. Science has long relied upon international cooperation to further our collective understanding of the universe. Science, confined to one country, would be greatly limited to say the least. Given the disastrous (for most of the world) colonial history that has led to the UK’s current position, the idea that we must target research to further our national advantage is deeply worrying.

Much of the language (e.g. “creative output”) in RCUK’s impact assessments is rooted in orthodox economics. This is the same economics that led to the 2007 financial crisis and inspired economics students to campaign for an overhaul of their curriculum. Measurements used in political discourse to describe the performance of the economy (namely GDP and GDP growth) are deeply flawed. There are many criticisms of GDP, including that it doesn’t account for inequality, is blind to sustainability and is increased by events – such as wars and oil spills – that can’t be considered to be good for society. Even the creator of GDP warned that it is inadequate to measure the social good of the economy. Other measures exist. The GINI coefficient that takes into account inequality, to a certain degree. The Happy Planet Index takes into account various important factors including environmental impact and life expectancy.

Beyond Economics

Even sophisticated indices can’t completely determine the social good of the economy. This isn’t an argument that they shouldn’t be adopted as useful indicators, but they must be viewed critically and shouldn’t be the target of scientific research.  The fundamental point is that scientific knowledge shouldn’t be seen as just a means to social ends but rather as intrinsically important.

Humans have a desire to understand the world around us. We value the understanding that science can bring and this is unrelated to economics. The sciences are as important a part of our culture as the arts, which we enjoy and appreciate on an emotional level. The vast majority of works of art see no economic benefit and aren’t even created with that in mind. Likewise, the wonder of discovery, not the potential for use, is the main motivation for scientists. We are betraying our true values when we submit to justifying our studies in socioeconomic terms. However, this is part of a wider, alienating, system, which means only a privileged few can opt out of impact assessments.

The futility of justifying our research in terms of its utility to society and the economy is clear. We can’t predict what research will lead to and measuring how it benefits us is difficult and rooted in an unfavourable ideology. The process of doing research has useful side effects, but more importantly, the knowledge gained has intrinsic and unquantifiable value. There is little we can do individually to reverse the commodification of science, but that doesn’t make us powerless. By coordinating our political influence as scientists and citizens, we can have a real impact. Another world, where science is valued for its fulfilment of the human desire for understanding, is possible.

Should scientists have to justify their research in terms of its socioeconomic impact?

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