Thursday, December 03, 2009

Smart investments?

At first glance, it seems like a sensible idea: the British government is demanding that taxpayer-funded scientists prove the societal, applied impact of their research. As the Times puts it:

Under the new Research Excellence Framework advanced by the higher education funding councils, academic departments will have to explain the economic or social impact of their previous research when it is assessed every five years. Their answers will help to determine the level at which they are funded: the plan is to give 25 per cent of the weighting to these impact statements.

Lord Drayson, Britain's science minister, in a panel debate with five early career scientists and science educators sponsored by the Times Higher Education, said that scientists who depend on taxpayer funds should "in their argument for future support for their science consider the impact, not just economic, but the impact potentially on public policy, on our culture."

On the Higher Education Funding Council for England's website, the policy itself reads: "Significant additional recognition will be given where researchers build on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life. Impacts will be assessed through a case-study approach that will be tested in a pilot exercise."

Lord Drayson, previously of the Ministry of Defence, made his fortune in biotech, eventually selling his company, Powderject, for £542 million. Now the government wants him to use his keen business head to make the tough funding calls at the ministry of science. So far Lord Drayson's favorite word has been impact, impact, impact.

In a February article on the BBC website he tried to assuage concerns that this emphasis on science with a high impact would let fundamental research to wither:

Some people have claimed that the government wants to cut back on research funding that isn't going to have an instant impact, but that's just not true. I said in my speech that I firmly believe we need to continue to invest in fundamental or 'blue-skies' research. Not all of that work will necessarily lead to an impact, and some may take many years. It doesn't mean we won't fund work where the benefits are difficult to predict, we just want the system to be better geared up to make the most of opportunities when they arise. And to the people who say "it will take 10 years before this research leads to an impact", let me say "yes, but what's happening today to the research you did eight years ago - are we doing enough to develop that?"

Proton cancer therapy and the World Wide Web are, off the top of my head, two enormously beneficial applications that arose directly from accelerator science, a field whose impact was called into sharp question in an opening speech at the British Science Festival earlier this year. And yet no particle physicists specifically set out to construct either. The fact of the matter is that it's impossible to predict or calculate what may come of "ivory tower" type academic work.

But Lord Drayson isn't demanding that scientists do that, at least not exactly. But he has put forth a somewhat radical idea: true, a researcher may not be able to peer into her microscope and divine an immediate financial payoff. But by evaluating the impact of previous work, can researchers and funding bodies select the projects most likely to pay off in the long run, thus shortening the temporal distance between scientific creativity and an economic boost? With a little information, is it possible to pick the winners?

Funding is limited, and Drayson's idea is to maximize the value of money invested in science. But even this seemingly sensible suggestion may have darker consequences. For instance, researchers already commit a vast amount of time and effort to writing grant proposals and defending their research. Now they must scrabble for evidence that their work has some societal, cultural, or economic impact, as well as having benefited the field and expanded knowledge. I should think this would take even more time away from what taxpayers are actually funding. Also, the question arises whether there are certain areas of math and science that should be preserved because they further pure knowledge. Solving Poincare's Conjecture has no obvious benefit to mankind and probably never will. But it is a masterpiece on par with our greatest works of art (although we probably don't fund the arts as much as we should, either.) Will research in pure math and physics, more akin to art than engineering, suffer under these new criteria? Even more chilling are a few lines from Drayson's speech on the subject:

Perhaps we could consider three criteria for identifying those areas for greater focus:

* where the UK has a clear competitive advantage
* where the growth opportunity over the next twenty years is significant
* and where the UK has a realistic prospect of being no1 or no2 in the world.

From these words, it seems like Drayson, despite his soothing insistence that he understands that fundamental research is of incalculable benefit, is approaching the scientists in his country in rather the same way that a venture capitalist firm might scope out a mob of competing startups. But should science be ruled with this rather utilitarian hand? Will we have to depend on private patrons, such as the billionaires behind the Perimeter Institute and the Kavli Institute, to support work deemed too airy for practical-minded governments?

Suzie Sheehee, a particle physicist turned cancer researcher, perhaps said it best during the panel discussion: "If the emphasis more on applied now, that might lead in 10 years time down the track not having much to apply, because the advances in basic sciences will not be there."

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