Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I’ve mocked the sometimes risible implications of the British obsession with tying academic research one-for-one with “impact” on industry or society. It’s not absurd to want to ask the question, I would argue, but expecting to be able to get answers about impact on the fine grain that is needed for steering funding decisions leads, I suggest, is a fool’s errand. There is also a (not very) hidden political agenda behind impact: Research that elucidates the origin of the Himalayas or the inner workings of modern religious movements, let us say, has no impact unless the BBC makes a documentary about it. Research that helps one bank increase its market share over another bank by better confusing its customers is rewarded for its impact, because definable (and potentially grateful) people have made money from it.

Nonetheless, the British establishment is not so crass as to suppose that helping to make money is the only possible utility of research. The UK research councils are at pains to point to the multiple “pathways to impact”, through changing public understanding, government policy, health benefits, education. For some purposes, even something as useless as influencing the progress of science can be counted as impact, though it fail to swell the bank account of even the smallest party donor.

To see the full unfolding of impact’s crassness potential, we need to look to Canada. John MacDougal, director of Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), announced his agency’s new focus on impact by saying,

Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.

No hedging there about social impact, contributing to public understanding, government policy, etc. Science minister Gary Goodyear  said that

We want business-driven, industry-relevant research and development.

This is not quite as outrageous as astronomer Phil Plait makes it seem, when he contends that “the Canadian government and the NRC have literally sold out science”. And he goes on to say that NRC “will only perform research that has ‘social or economic gain’.” An article quotes Goodyear saying

the government isn’t abandoning basic science, just shifting its focus to commercializing discoveries. “The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run simply by publishing a paper on some new discovery,” he said. “The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social or economic gain.”

Furthermore, you would think from reading Plait that NRC would otherwise be responsible for funding basic scientific research in Canada, but it spun off most of those duties to the funding agencies — NSERC (National Science and Engineering Research Council), CIHR (Canadian Institutes for Health Research), and SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) — back in the late 1970s, I believe. When I was a professor at Queen’s University I never heard anyone talk about NRC. So far as I can tell, it’s long been on the applied and practical end of research in Canada, and that’s fine that the government is concerned with that end of the process.

Still, Goodyear’s line is pretty crass, as well as short-sighted, and not just for historical reasons, because these so-called “home runs” were never simply the result of a single paper. I don’t know much about baseball, but I doubt that teams win games by aiming to maximise the number of home runs. That’s why successful science policy recognises the overriding importance of fostering a thriving scientific culture. I suspect this is the result of “winner take all” economics percolating into science policy.

It’s not that economic and social impact are irrelevant — it would be hard to justify sending researchers to explore the core of a black hole, where the enormous knowledge they would gain could never be communicated back to the rest of humanity — but it has long been recognised that it is hard enough to try to judge the scientific value of new research; trying to judge the potential spin-offs and the real long-term impact of scientific research is just hopeless.

Also, “social or economic gain” sounds fairly general, but the context leads one to suspect that they are mainly eager to promote the interests of business, which are not identical with the interests of the nation. Goodyear is quoted saying

Our businesses are not doing the research that they need to do, so something had to be done.

If the businesses aren’t doing the research into problems directly related to their concerns, then maybe they have judged for good reasons that it is not worth doing. You would expect the free market to price such research appropriately. Public research should probably be directed primarily where you would expect markets to fail; that is, at research whose value is hard to quantify, or hard to evaluate in the short-term, or that won’t enrich any one individual at the expense of another. In other words, the near antithesis of “impact”.

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