Should Scientists Have To Justify Their Research In Terms Of Its Socioeconomic Impact?

Myles Selvey

What has this world we live in become?

Does everything have a value?

Even knowledge?

It appears that in the age that we live in everything has to have some form of commercial value. TV shows are all about improving your home to sell it for more, or selling your old antiques. But how, over the last few decades, has this idea managed to transfer to ideas? Ideas are becoming products.

Back when modern science was still young we, as a human race, had a completely different view of the world. In the 15th and 16th century the work of Copernicus revolutionised some of science with the idea of heliocentrism. This was later built on by many astronomers and researchers, yet at the time it was kept relatively quiet. His work would not bring a further income to his country, and was generally completed because he wanted to understand the world around him and explain what he saw. In the 17th century Galileo was not funded by a large organisation, he was not set to make any major financial gain from his work.He simply pursued knowledge.  On several occasions he was brought forward to renounce his beliefs and accept the ideas in the bible. Yet he persevered..

Yet what have we done with his work since? This is where his legacy lies. Almost every advancement in astronomy since has been based on the fundamental ideas that Galileo and Copernicus put forward. If we still believed ourselves to be at the centre of the universe would we even consider the possibility of life on other planets, or test ourselves with what we can get into space. Maybe a dog, a monkey, a human? The scientific advancements that are believed to be spin offs from NASA are claimed to number over 1,500[1]. Even up to quite recently in 2005 a system used to clean the ground after a rocket launch, or clean specific parts provided a solution to dealing with underground pollution and increasing the safety of local fresh water. New safety devices, new materials, new software even new medicine has all come from this initial drive to explore. Yet it is possible to ask someone on the street “what is the point of exploring space?” and they will not have an answer for you.

People would classify this type of work as research with the sole reason of it just being research. There is no clear end goal that benefits the wellbeing of mankind and it will not even give us a new app for our phones. From what I see around me, most people want something they can see, or touch, or understand. Yet a lot of work being done, especially in theoretical fields, doesn’t provide that. So it is easy to see why this type of research seems to be in an ever shrinking market. And that is just the word for it: market.

One of the biggest pieces of news lately is the possible creation of the world’s first quantum computer[2]. This, if true, is one of the largest jumps in technology we have seen in a long time. A quantum computer has an obvious socioeconomic impact on the world, and it has received equal media attention. Media attention  drives interest, which  drives investment, which drives results. From this the work into quantum computing, the development will gain even more momentum and thus more media attention and so on. This is not to say that the development of quantum computing is a bad thing, in fact it is a good example of where having an immediate socioeconomic impact is a good thing. It could be argued that any attention and money directed towards the sciences is a good thing. But there is only a limited amount of money, so what field will it be taken from?

We are reducing our ability to see the use of research for the point of research. Or what is at least on the surface only for the point of research. The fundamental problem is a lack of forsight. Everything needs an instant return. A recent example of this is just last week I saw on Facebook somebody had posted a status asking what is the point of landing on a comet when we should be using the money to cure ebola or curing cancer. This does raise some interesting points. The output of research does not have to be economic. It could be something health related, which can be interpreted as falling under the “social” heading.

It has to be taken into consideration that when a cure for a disease is discovered and produced this drug will not be free, and in some cases not be cheap. But the overall reasoning behind the research is not economic, it is to save lives. And this work is what is most respected and justified by the public. There is a clear, good willed, aim and this is one of the few areas of research that is funded by charities. You do not see someone collecting in the street for researching black holes. And I think this points towards the real meaning behind the socioeconomic justification of science: does it fulfil the selfish act of helping yourself or the selfless act of helping others. If not, is it justifiable?

As stated earlier, with regards to the work done by NASA and what it created as spin offs, it could be. At the time, Copernicus and Galileo could never have known what their work would lead to, and neither do we. The search for dark matter may just appear to be an attempt at finishing a puzzle, but what if decades, centuries or millennia down the line we discover a use for it? We do not know. We cannot know. It is impossible to disregard any piece of research as pointless as one advancement in a field leads to another, which leads to another which may lead to something that will fulfil the aforementioned naïve description of a socioeconomic impact in the eyes of the public

[1] http://www.nasa.gov/50th/50th_magazine/benefits.html

[2] http://www.dwavesys.com/quantum-computing

Should Scientists Have To Justify Their Research In Terms Of Its Socioeconomic Impact?

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