Accounting for Research

Accounting for scientists

How does one measure the worth of the science base? From the scientists’ perspective it is their bread and butter, or low-fat spread and rye biscuit, perhaps, in some cases. From industry’s standpoint, it is occasionally a source of interesting and potentially money-spinning ideas. Sometimes, it sits in its ivory tower and, to the public, it is the root of all those media scare stories. At worst, the science base is perceived as a huge drain on taxpayers’ money, especially when the popular press gets hold of ‘spiders on cannabis’ and the ‘scum on your tea’ as the lead science stories for the year!

For the government though, which more often than not is providing the funds for basic research, the science base is crucial to all kinds of endeavours: wealth creation, the development of fundamental science into practical technology, the demolition of those ivory towers and the mixing of scientists with the great industrial unwashed through collaboration. As such, governments try to ensure that the science they fund is accountable – to government, to its sponsors and to society and the public as a whole.

But, I come back to my first question. How does one measure the impact of basic research on society? If one went begging for funding for a new area in chemistry with no practical applications anywhere in sight, funding would likely be meagre. It can be dressed up, of course, natural product chemistry almost always has the potential for novel medicinally active compounds while even the most esoteric supramolecular chemistry could be the nanotechnology breakthrough we have been waiting for. You’ve seen and maybe even written the applications yourself. On the other hand, take any piece of genetics with the potential to cure some likely disease and the cash will usually roll in, at least relatively speaking.

So, what does quality mean when applied to scientific research? Was the discovery of the fullerenes quality science? Well, yes it obviously was in that it stirred up the chemistry and other communities and generated mass appeal for a subject that gets rather less of an airing in a positive light than certain other sciences. Fullerenes also provided some of the scientists involved with a Nobel Prize so someone in Sweden must have liked it.

But, if we were to apply any kind of standard criteria of usefulness to society we would be hard pushed to give it the highest score except only as a demonstration that fundamental science can still excite. After all, have you seen any real applications yet? I touched on the potential for medicinal fullerenes early in the fullerene rising star and it is probably unfair to single them out for accountability, especially as ultimately they inspired the carbon nanotubes. You might say that they are simply one of many examples of science as art. They allow us to visualise the world in a new way, they are beautiful – chemically, mathematically, physically.

The pressure is now on scientists to face up to some imposing questions as government-mandated requirements begin to come into effect. [This has become a moot point in the UK since this article was first aired, given funding cuts for big, esoteric science projects]. Efforts to make science accountable come with a massive burden of controversy and are hindered by the almost impossible task of measuring creative activities such as research. Added to this, accountability requires increasing levels of administration especially at times of formal assessment for the scientists themselves.

The careers of most scientists hinge on these assessments, in more ways than one, as the pressure on faculty pushes them in directions they may not naturally go, producing research papers just to satisfy the assessment process, for instance. This coupled with a general drive to bring science to the public – through media initiatives – and so demonstrate to people why science is important and why their money should be spent on it – just adds to the pressure.

However, despite the marketing-style talk of stakeholders, and the close industrial analogues, the shareholders, basic scientific research is not about customers and churning out identical components on a production line. There are usually no targets and no truly viable and encompassing methods to assess the quality of any part of the scientific endeavour. Ironically, this means the end-of-year bonus is something on which most scientists miss out, regardless of their successes. Science is the art, technology makes it pay, but some art is fundamental or avant garde and some finds its way on to advertising hoardings. Which do you prefer, fine art or glossy brochure?

By forcing basic science to become accountable in terms of product and efficiency there is the possibility that creativity and autonomy will be stifled. If done right, accountability can strengthen the relationship between research and society.

Measuring the socioeconomic benefits from specific scientific investments is tough. Basic research gets embodied in society’s collective skills, putatively taking us many more directions than we would otherwise have headed. As such, it can have a future impact on society at entirely unpredictable points in time. Who knows where that pioneering fullerene chemistry will have taken us by the end of this century?

Sir Harry Kroto, co-discoverer of the fullerenes told me in an interview once that, “Scientists are undervalued by a society that does not understand how outstanding someone has to be to become a full-time researcher.” Maybe the measure of science is in its beauty rather than its assessment scores.

7 thoughts on “Accounting for Research”

  1. David,

    thanks for the post.
    A few reactions.

    Scientists love to compare themselves to artists. For some reason they implicitly have in their minds great artists, like Leonardo Da Vinci or Rembrandt. But the factual situation is that a very large majority of artists do not make any money. Even worse they are on well-fare. So if scientists wants the same independence and artistic freedom as artists enjoy,  they should, like artists, refrain from asking governments for funding.

    A particular important aspect of the relation between science and society is that science can satisfy the curiosity of man. The ultimate example is astronomy. This discipline has no economic use, but it is probably the science discipline that can count most on the support of laymen.

    In the western societies there are too many scientists given the support that democratically elected governments are willing to spend on science. This naked fact will never be admitted by any politician as he would be butchered by his political opponents. As a result we have all this fighting for grant proposals. And scientists are confronted with all this extra conditions on supportable research: it should be relevant, having an application horizon, sustainable, or it should be classifiable with whatever management-speak label.

    The answer of scientists, when confronted with a request from society to justify their research, of "wait and see" is arrogant. Defending  the Higgs-boson or quantum computer with the success of the transistor and chip would, if accepted by society, boil down to a carte blanche for the scientists.

    The attitude by many scientists to hype up their field to such an extent that miracles are promised is immoral. Even if the media and the public at large fall for these untenable commitments.

    So, IMHO, we need a reasonable gain for society. The question is the time frame. Wanting it next year is ridiculous. Not having made substantial progress towards societal relevance in 50 years seems to concern research that should have stopped much earlier. What about 25 years as the delivery date. 

    Ad Lagendijk


  2. Your question is an interesting one, and highlights the fundamental difference between basic research and applied research (and development). Our company has been struggling with this issue for 25 years and decided long ago that, in a twist on the famous phrase, value is in the eye of the beholder. One of the key reasons that basic research is so undervalued is that researchers are, stereotypically, unwilling to communicate what it is they are doing through fear of having to “dumb it down” not only for non-scientists, but even those conducting research in other fields.

    If as you say, research is art, I would argue that one of the primary values of art is to inspire. Art is unable to inspire locked away in a cabinet (or lab), invisible to those who may see value in it for them. One never knows who will take inspiration from the Renoir (or fullerene) and create something with measurable value.

  3. Very timely article. An observation that struck me was, ‘It (science) can have a future impact on society at entirely unpredictable points in time’ which I think is a most poignant parallel between the body of science and fine arts. There is always a necssary tension between accountability/directed research and discovery science. But will that tension dramatically change during an economic downturn? Scientists depend on funds and artists don’t?

  4. David likewise agree excellent post and see basic research funding as an investment/gamble because never know what or when a tangible application may ultimately result. Science exploration may be more about the journey then the destination since can spawn new pathways that may or may not provide beneficial applications.

    As you suggest sometimes more pressure comes from attempting to explain connection to public. Rather than freely admitting that there may be no immediate impact of certain work, beyond the science goals, there can be over pushing for such a technology so looks like it failed on promises. Even when you get to the applied side it remains hard to judge science accountability since outcomes can fail or be slow although do have more defined objectives.

  5. Prashant, thanks for the comment, it’s possible. Maybe I should do a follow-up bearing that point in mind, given that the original version of this article was written before the notion of the semantic web had really begun to take hold.


  6. Excellent point about the unpredictable ways and points of time in the future that today’s science will impact.

    Question is whether developments like the semantic web make it easier or even possible to quantify this impact?

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