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

Benjamin Whitby.

Penicillin. The internet. Quantum computers. What do they all have in common? They all came about as by-products from research that never intended to invent them. This fact is now more important than ever seeing as though there are more and more research proposals being submitted meaning that funding and resources has to be shared out across a greater number of projects. Naturally this begs the question of how to decide which proposals deserve the resources and which are deemed to not be important enough. Historically funding was obtained primarily by knowing people with the financial power to assist with your research such as Alexander Graham Bell receiving money from one of his students’ father in order to develop the harmonic telegraph [1], but as time has gone on the means by which researchers obtain funding has changed. Nowadays a substantial amount of funding comes from public sources which means there is increasingly more scrutiny on what impact any research may have and whether it is worth investing time and money into. In this piece I’ll be discussing just how much justification scientists should be providing to prove that their research has a significant socioeconomic impact and the implications of this aspect of grant applications.

You can imagine how disheartening it is if someone has devoted their entire life to a particular area of research, meticulously worked through the theory, developed a way to test their theory, only to be told that they won’t be receiving any support because they haven’t been able to justify how their findings may result in any financial gain. This is becoming an increasingly more common occurrence for researchers and is proving to be a controversial topic. The question is should this be the direction that applying for research should continue in? It’s natural for us to want to minimise waste in what we do and that includes science as well. So when proposals are made there is a pressure to bill your proposals as being a pathway to a game changing discovery or invention, but at the same time it’s important to be realistic with what’s more likely to happen. The issue is we never really know what we might find.

In 1928 Professor of Bacteriology Alexander Fleming noticed an unusual feature on a petri dish that contained bacteria and a spot of mould. He observed a ring around the mould that appeared to have killed off the bacteria, so he concluded that something must have been secreted to kill the bacteria. Following this discovery Fleming did not see the potential of penicillin as a medicine and instead focussed on using penicillin as a way of isolating specific types of bacteria from a mixed culture [2]. In fact it wasn’t until a decade later at Oxford University that a team of researchers began to develop penicillin as a possible medicine that was eventually created just in time to save countless limbs and lives during WW2. The relevance of this case is that it is not always immediately clear how your research will benefit society. Fleming had noticed the remarkable properties of this substance but his first thought was to use it as an application for his Bacteriology research in his lab which is a very specific area that would only benefit a small section of society. If this minor use of Penicillin had not been allowed to be researched further then it is possible that research into penicillin would have ceased altogether and no one would have been thinking about it to make the link to medicine. So it’s worth considering what possible discoveries we could miss out on if we exclusively funded research that had an obvious socioeconomic impact that was far reaching in society.

A similar example is the invention of the internet. A significant amount of the early funding into networks was by private investors who saw the chance to use them as way of communication between staff members in their companies. Similarly, the researchers who were constructing these networks had the idea of making communication with their colleagues easier. These networks were largely very successful and were able to speed up communications on a local scale. However the issue with them was that they were all set up slightly differently so large scale communication between networks wasn’t possible. It wasn’t until Tim Berners-Lee realised that there was an opportunity to connect everyone in the world that he started trying to link different parts of the research together in order to make the World Wide Web [3]. So again we have a case of one of the biggest advances of the century being made from research being completed with a different objective in mind, which just goes to show how unpredictable science is.

Although the two examples so far involved results beyond what the researchers set out to achieve, both of them initially had some potential for a socioeconomic impact. So in today’s age they perhaps would have been able to justify their research, even if their original goal was significantly less game changing than what their findings would eventually lead to. But then again what if they had been made to justify their research in terms of socioeconomic value? Would Fleming have come up with the idea of penicillin as a medicine himself? Making people think of applications of their research could in fact be of huge benefit to society because it will force researchers to consider how their work could translate into important applications that in these examples could have revolutionised the world of medicine or communication earlier than when they actually happened.

Other more abstract areas of research may struggle a bit more with this challenge. Consider the final example I mentioned in the introduction, quantum computers. This is an incredible application of quantum mechanical ideas that couldn’t possibly have been envisioned when the first grants for research into quantum mechanics were awarded. Hence these types of proposals at the forefront of their fields are the ones that will lose out if all proposals require a strong socioeconomic justification. Certain disciplines would still be able to provide a strong argument for furthering knowledge from the social side of things because they can inspire the next generation to pursue careers in science. For instance astronomy may be able to fair better seeing as though there is great public interest in the field which can be seen in the rise of astronomy shows with figures such as Brian cox as well as YouTube channels devoted to explaining big scientific ideas in short videos such as ‘Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell[4]. In addition, we are living in a world where religion is playing a lesser role in society which means increasingly people are looking to science to try to answer the big questions about why we’re here. So generally people still have an appetite for certain areas of science and are happy to support funding for it. However I’m not sure whether you’d be able to stimulate a similar level of interest for the core mathematics behind quantum theory.

Perhaps it’s worth thinking about who is actually awarding the grants. In the cases where there is an obvious economic benefit of researching in a specific area there will be a reason for large investment to support it. For example, since the discovery of Graphene it has attracted huge investment with a basic google search giving pages and pages of sites to advise us on which Graphene companies to invest in. The National Graphene Institute has been awarded £61 million alone to continue the development of Graphene which shows that when I discovery takes off it can command huge sums of money as investment [5]. All the publicly funded proposals need to make themselves the most attractive because there’s competition. In an ideal world with unlimited resources everyone would be given the funding they need to carry out their research without having to point to a socioeconomic benefit, but in reality there are many different groups competing for the same funding. Therefore the people who make the decision have a tough decision to make so will try to weigh up as many different pros and cons to each idea as possible before making their decision. Also bear in mind that whatever decision is made will come under scrutiny from those who have missed out on funding so any clear reasons why a proposal isn’t just going to waste money will be a great advantage when submitting an application.

There is also the argument of focussing on developing the technologies we do have a grasp of in order to exploit what we already know to face the biggest problems that our world faces. There is definitely a case for heavy investment in investing in projects that aim to improve living standards and sustainability, particularly in third world countries. So should be first strive to solve those problems to create a sustainable society with what we do know before throwing vast sums of money into trying to push the frontiers of knowledge even further, when there is a chance that we could learn nothing from it. For example, vast sums of money and entire careers have been devoted to developing different permutations of string theory and in return it has enhanced our understanding of mathematics but has not yet offered anything conclusive in terms of physics. Moreover it does not claim to offer any economic benefits, even if it is proven to explain the nature of our universe, so do we have to ask whether such extensive research into it is really justified. Again we arrive back at the point of researching for the sake of knowledge and whether it is really what we want and need. In the case of string theory I think that there’s certainly a case to say that perhaps it has eaten up more than its fair share of resources and has stifled research into several other channels that offer a chance at explaining our universe at a more fundamental level.

It’s certainly easy to be sceptical about what physical applications could be developed from pursuing string theory, however I’m sure the same was said before when the mysteries of quantum mechanics were being unravelled. So in many ways it is important to look to the past to see how things tend to pan out and, when we do that for this question, it seems to suggest that things that are unexpected and lead to great discoveries do seem to happen so long as you have faith in research. Now this doesn’t mean to say that I believe that solely a scientific justification rather than a socioeconomic justification for research is required but instead I think that a balance should be found. There will always be certain proposals that have clear socioeconomic benefits and those that don’t but this is merely one consideration to take into account when assessing which proposals to allocate resources to. At the end of the day a group of researchers who submit a proposal with a clear economic advantage will be more in favour of giving a greater weighting to the socioeconomic impact side of things than those searching for something at the frontier of their field. It has to be said that this discussion has been considering the implications of adopting approaches at each end of the scale of having to justify the socioeconomic impact of research when, in reality, adopting more of a middle ground approach seems the best option. So when a new proposal is being made it is worth keeping in mind that there are plenty of others to compete with so every effort to make yours the most attractive should be made. Then in the process you may come across a new invention that can be the new penicillin or world wide web of today.

  1. Art Jahnke. Who Picks up the Tab for Science? Retrieved January 10, 2017 from http://www.bu.edu/research/articles/funding-for-scientific-research/
  2. The Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum, London, UK. (1999, November 19). The discovery and development of penicillin. Retrieved January 10, 2017 from https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/flemingpenicillin.html
  3. Barry M. Leiner,Vinton G. Cerf, David D. Clark, Robert E. Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Daniel C. Lynch, Jon Postel, Larry G. Roberts, Stephen Wolff. (2012, October 12). Brief History of the Internet. Retrieved January 10, 2017 from http://www.internetsociety.org/brief-history-internet
  4. https://www.youtube.com/user/Kurzgesagt
  5. National Graphene Institute (NGI). Funding. Retrieved January 10, 2017 from http://www.graphene.manchester.ac.uk/collaborate/national-graphene-institute/funding/
Should scientists have to justify their research in terms of its socioeconomic impact?

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