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

JOSEPH SHANKLAND

Society that is no longer capable of waiting; we have been conditioned into knowing that what we want can be directly and instantaneously obtainable – we can walk into a fast food ‘restaurant’ and get a quick fix, we work hourly and daily knowing that we are receiving a direct monetary recompense. This conditioned behavior has led to us having an incredibly myopic vision, a way of thinking whereby the question of ‘what if’ has been relegated in favour of ‘I will do this because I want that’. Clearly this ethos has infiltrated its way into the domain of science, whereby large amounts of public research funding is allocated on the basis of ‘when’; not ‘if’, it will have a socioeconomic impact.

 

The question on whether or not research should be justified in terms of its socioeconomic impact actually bemuses me in a very simple way; in fact I’m sure it does to most scientists who have a grasp of scientific history. It bemuses me because it has a very obvious underlying fallacy, in that throughout the history of science, theories have been developed through research that people originally thought had no scientific basis, let alone ‘socioeconomic impact’. These theories have then gone on, whether immediately or decades later, to fundamentally shift how technology works, our quality of life and most importantly our knowledge of the universe. For example was Copernicus’ research into heliocentricity unjustified at the time because it didn’t increase the GDP of Prussia?

 

Now this converges back to my original point about society being myopic in their justification of research, because how is it possible to objectively quantify whether research will be socioeconomically beneficial when we cannot know what, if anything, it will manifest into? We are clearly too fixated on acquiring immediate benefit that we have appeared to forget the true purpose of research, which is the pursuit of knowledge. For generations research has been undertaken to develop the knowledge and understanding of humankind and not to generate some direct socioeconomic benefits, it is particularly clear as well that the more educated and the more we understand about science the more the economy and society benefit. The understanding and development of knowledge we acquire through research is in itself what justifies the research and whether or not it has a socioeconomic benefit is secondary. Unfortunately this altruistic approach to research is not inline with how the capitalistic market forces and the scarcity of resources operate.

 

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

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