Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I’ve been interested in the turn of government funders of scientific research in several countries — in particular, US, UK, and Canada — to target research spending likely to have high economic benefit. I’ve commented here on Canadian developments, and satirised UK impact obsession here (though I actually think the UK bureaucracy has done a fairly good job at diverting the ill-informed government rhetorical pressure into less harmful directions). Lawrence Krauss, writing in Slate, has pulled together some of these recent developments with some interesting commentary.

One interesting analogy has recently occurred to me: Scientific research is a public good, like roads. I’m no expert on transportation policy, but my impression is that when transportation plans are laid, when they decide to invest the necessary capital in widening this highway, or paving that cowpath, the political decision-makers don’t devote a lot of energy to questioning whether it’s really productive for people to be travelling along this route, whether people going from A to B (and back) is actually going to provide economic benefits. The arguments usually stop at the evidence that people are travelling that route, that the current roads are congested, and so on. Experience has shown that efficient transportation infrastructure promotes economic growth and general public welfare, and government should provide people with the means to get where they want to go reasonably quickly and safely, without needing to micromanage exactly why everyone wants to go wherever it is they want to go.

Similarly, experience shows that thriving scientific research promotes economic growth, and public welfare, and we should invest in making it thrive. Where should we invest? We should look where the traffic is going, and not ask why it is going there.

This is not quite as straightforward as the road-building problem, because we do want to distinguish between high-quality research and low-quality research, but even a certain amount of boring, non-paradigm-breaking, grey-skies research can play an important part in keeping the scientific enterprise healthy. Making this distinction is the job of peer-review, and maybe it needs to be done differently, but I would contend that trying to slather on another layer of “impact” evaluation is not going to make the process or the research more productive.

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