UK Criterion 2?February 12th, 2009
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An article in the Times Higher Education reveals a classic example of the debate about what society (and government) can and should expect from the scientists who receive public support of their research. A few quotations will summarize:
In a letter in this issue of Times Higher Education, the group calls for academics to rebel against new rules that state that the potential financial or social effects of research must be highlighted in a two-page “impact summary” in grant applications.
The requirement to provide a summary, answering questions about who might benefit from the research and how a financial return could be ensured, is being phased in by the UK’s seven research councils. The summary will be used by peer reviewers as a factor when determining which applications receive funding.
The scientists suggest two problems with this: 1. that they should not be expected to predict potential outcomes of their research, the results of which are highly uncertain, and 2. that this will shift the balance of funding away from “blue skies” research:
“The academic community must stand up,” said Professor Braben, adding that history showed that even the most seemingly inapplicable of scientific discoveries could yield huge economic benefits, such as the development of lasers.
“You cannot command developments at the frontier, it is not possible,” Professor Braben said.
He added that the new policy spelt the end for blue-skies research. “As soon as you identify a beneficiary for research … the councils are going to turn it around and say, right, deliver. And then it is applied research … You can’t have blue-skies research if you put caveats on it.”
For some reason it is still necessary to point out that the dichotomy between basic and applied research is false: applied research may lead to fundamental breakthroughs in knowledge, and “blue skies” research can lead to useful applications. But in any case, the scientists (not to mention one of the blog reactions) may be misunderstanding or misrepresenting just what these new expectations entail:
Philip Esler, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, speaking on behalf of Research Councils UK, said: “The description of impact that the research councils work with is broad, encompassing not only the contribution research makes to the economy but also to society as a whole.
“It covers not only economic benefits, but also those related to public policy, quality of life, health and creative output. Research councils will not be disadvantaging blue-skies research, nor stifling creativity.
“The impact statement is not designed to ask peer reviewers or applicants to predict future benefits. It is intended to allow the applicant to highlight potential pathways to impact, especially through collaboration with partners, and to help the research councils support them in these activities.
This makes a great deal more sense. Almost all government funding for science is justified on the basis that it will contribute to these kinds of outcomes. Is it all that scandalous to suggest that scientists should have some understanding of the social contexts of the problems they are studying, or at least that they collaborate with someone who does?
One of the biggest challenges in science lies in connecting new knowledge with users who can actually benefit from it. This lesson is demonstrated in many different areas, particularly in climate science, where huge amounts of resources are spent on physical science that yields very little useful information to natural resource managers and other decision makers at whom this new knowledge is targeted. Making these connections requires partnerships between scientists and potential users, and it requires that scientists understand the context of knowledge use and/or decision making.
Of course, it is quite possible that a new requirement such as this could go the way of NSF’s criterion 2, which is seen by many as merely a formality with little meaning. Or, if it is poorly implemented, the new rules may place undue burden on researchers in terms of our expectations of them. But the emphasis on collaboration with partners is promising.
And the reaction of scientists to this effort reflect a dangerous sense of entitlement. Yes, the funding of science is important, but the science community is lucky to have it. If we take this at face value as an effort by the government to build stronger connections between science and the problems it is trying to solve, then resistance to such ideas starts to look pretty arrogant.