Add Your Idea

Remove requirements that research be funded based on “impact”

Comment 7th July 2010

The last government changed how money is allocated for publicly funded scientific research so that it is based on potential economic "impact". So whether businesses will benefit, or whether the research will increase GNP are used to decide which research gets our money.

 

That decision should be reversed.

Why does this matter?

That might seem fine, but it betrays a gross misunderstanding of science, and of the reason for publicly funded research.

 

A lot of research, when it is first started, has no obvious benefit to mankind. The scientists are motivated by a thirst for knowledge. Spending money on such research isn't wasteful though – not only can it improve man's understanding of the natural world, but very often it can have massive economic benefits that can't be predicted before the research is conducted. This is usually called "blue skies research".

 

Take the field of particle physics. A very theoretical field, it is not obvious to any politician why discovering (or not discovering) the Higgs Boson say, should have economic benefits. But it does. Just this one field has explicitly or implicitly brought the world:

 

* The discovery of the electron which led to electricity. A famous quote by its discoverer, J J Thomson, is his toast "To the electron: May it never be of use to anyone".

* Nuclear energy (and unfortunately, weapons)

* Lasers

* The World Wide Web (and the first Web browser)

* PET scans, and similar medical scans

* Radiotherapy

 

Now CERN is a world leader in cloud computing.

 

We could've never got any of that if we'd not funded blue skies thinking, and given academics the freedom to explore the world around them.

 

As I said, the current situation indicates that the last government didn't understand how science works. If science *knew* what the economic impact would be, then it wouldn't be research now, would it. As comedian Dara O'Briain likes to say "Science knows it doesn't know everything, otherwise it'd stop!".

 

And why should a marine biologist (for instance) be expected to calculate the potential economic impact of their research anyway? They're a marine biologist, not an economist. This is just needless bureaucracy getting in the way of good reasearch.

 

Finally, it doesn't understand the purpose of publicly funded research. If a research proposal has clear potential economic benefits, then the private sector, based on the profit motive, will fund the research. It is the role of the government to fund that research that wouldn't get funded by the private sector, and that quite clearly is mainly blue skies research.

 

Anyway, here is a good site with lots of links with more info on this:

 

http://www.csc.liv.ac.uk/~leslie/impact/impact.html

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)

Highlighted posts


Comment on this idea

Good idea? Bad idea? Let us know your thoughts.


Back to top
Add Your Idea