Should scientists have to justify their research in terms of socio-economic impact?

Piyumu Athulathmudali

LHCWelfare, adjustment to the changing environment, food security, global threats to security, cultural heritage, transportation, the digital economy and a myriad more. The mix of social and economic factors that might come into play when assessing the worth of scientific research is extensive, and a lot of it depends on who you ask.  Who decides what these factors are, and which should come at the forefront of decisions? How much does public opinion have to do with any of this, and how much should it?

The UK spends 1.79% of its GDP on research and development, falling below the EU average of just over 2%. With public R&D funding limited as ever, these questions continue to be important.

How should public funding be prioritised? Science for science’s sake doesn’t do well in the popularity contest of driving forces. It is hard to argue in any compelling way for its case without appealing to emotions at the expense of logic and absence of bias.

Much of the science that inspires us falls under the category of…” ‘blue-skies research’ – curiosity-driven, fundamental research. Often the ideas underlying works of science fiction, featuring topics such as unexplained phenomena, the ultimate fate of the universe, and interstellar travel, do a lot for the image of the scientific field as a desirable one to be involved in. This is an easy idea to overlook or dismiss when considering impact of research, but inspiring future generations is vital. Exactly how vital is difficult to quantify.

A popular belief is that the government ought to seek out research that is more focused on pressing matters, with more apparent goals or potential outcomes. Should anything else be considered a luxury that we cannot afford? Or a luxury on which we can afford to allocate a tiny sum (of the already tiny sum available)? Could the money spent on the Large Hadron Collider have been better spent?

There is another way of looking at this. Private enterprises are usually concerned with funding those projects for which the likelihood of a profitable outcome is high enough, and obviously so. This is easier to do when the outcome is a specific one. Perhaps then, scientific progress would be optimal if the government more readily focused on those other projects, for which the consequences are much less certain – less obviously likely, but not less likely, to have beneficial outcomes.

It is difficult to quantify the direct socio-economic effects of scientific research, and things are further complicated when considering indirect effects. An effective way to measure or quantify socio-economic impact of research undertaken has yet to be demonstrated. Perhaps it would be easier to demonstrate how the nature of scientific advancement itself implies that coming up with any reasonable evidence-based approach to measuring impact would be unfeasible, than to actually come up with one.

Unlike prediction as a stage in the scientific method itself, prediction of the consequences and impact of a piece of research is vastly more complicated. When we are dealing with the complex causality involved, and the heterogeneity of the innovation process, this complexity should be expected, but is it? We’ve heard of unexpected, even accidental discoveries, penicillin being a notable example. But does the general public underestimate this as a few rare occurrences, or do we really understand the nature of how it can all pan out?

“The fewer the facts, the stronger the opinion”, as homourist Arnold H. Glasow put it, is an idea often apparent in views surrounding science. Should greater effort be put into informing the public of the unpredictably of outcomes of and shed light on worries about wasted taxpayers’ pounds? NASA has made a point of doing this with its Spinoff publication. A NASA ‘spinoff’ refers to a technology, once developed specially for NASA’s mission requirements, that has been implemented in day-to-day life through commercial products and services. Memory foam, tumor-fighting light-emitting diodes, invisible braces, and enriched baby food are just some examples.

It can often take a long time to commercialise research results, and time is money. But again, how are these costs and benefits to be assessed? When can we say that the investment is justified?

The Haldane Principle

One of the principles behind British research policy is the Haldane Principle – the idea that researchers, rather than politicians, should make the decisions about how to dispense research funding. Its effect seems to be to boost curiosity-driven research over goal-driven research. Sometimes accused of being out-of-date, some think it ought to be abandoned. Others agree with the Royal Society’s view that “Rather than a debate about what Haldane meant in 1918, we need a better understanding about the way in which the Government now interprets the Haldane Principle”. It should continue to be implemented, but also should be extended so as not to impede on more goal-driven research.

 Public opinion

Various topics shine through as hot topics when it comes to public opinion and what the consensus is of yay or nay when it comes scientific research methods and directions. Animal experimentation yields particularly strong opinions. Generally morality-driven opinions are those that are less likely changed.  An important consideration, especially under the Haldane Principle, would be how representative the scientific community are of the general public, in terms of moral values. Is there any reason why views should diverge in this regard? If not, where would differences occur, in the views of scientists as a sample of the population, compared to the average view of the population? Would these differences be eliminated if the public were to be better informed about certain things? It would give them a better basis to assess the benefits and risks, and make their own informed decisions about controversial issue such as GM crops. The more familiar the public with the facts, the more beneficial it would be to heighten their involvement in policy-making decisions.

A new balance   

Curiosity driven research drives curiosity itself, It also has the potential to bring about many unplanned benefits as we have seen in the past. Perhaps in some cases this potential seems less likely: The Ig Nobel prize honours “achievements that make people laugh, and then think.” Last year a prize went to a group in Japan for “for assessing the effect of listening to opera, on heart transplant patients who are mice.” Would Ig Nobel prize-worthy research qualify as something the government should be willing to fund? Is this a step too far?

Mission-driven research is no doubt important in conjunction with curiosity-driven research. Will we find an ideal balance between the two, one that works best for us (if such a thing exists)?

Should scientists have to justify their research in terms of socio-economic impact?

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