David Bradley

Getting a measure of scientific progress

Without entering into a debate about the merits of fundamental research, it is, pretty much taken as read by business, government, and many NGOs that science begets technology and technology begets money. Advances in science obviously underpin new technological developments and these then give us cultural, social, and economic progress of varying degrees.

That said, there is a school of thought that would suggest, aside from medical advances, the advent of much of the gadgetry we use today from iPods to wind farms and from hybrid cars to the International Space Station isn’t much of an advance on what we had in the past, but again, that’s probably a debate for another time, suffice to say that many of us, “shave with soap and razor, don clothes of cotton and wool, read a paper, drink a coffee heated by gas or electricity and go to work with the aid of petrol and an internal combustion engine,” and have been doing so for the best part of a century.

This post is intended to focus on how we can measure all of this progress, or more specifically how can we quantify research and innovation. The aim of measuring scientific and technological change would be to help explain how they come about and so “inform”, as they say, the powers that be so that guidelines and strategies can be developed to assist.

Ironically, two research issues are on the agenda for me today, one is the release of a report that shows that public engagement with research is critical to research success the second is that Intute, a major academic portal in the UK that pools and annotates manually incredible amounts of information on research and technology has had its funding cut. This latter fact is particularly frustrating as I spent many years providing Intute, and the predecessor of its physical science section, PSIgate, with research news and views.

So, back to the quantification of progress. A paper in the International Journal of Technology, Policy and Management, suggests that economics are the main scope of interest for measuring scientific and technological change. At this point, the cynical among us might grunt: “enough said,” and move on.

Mario De Marchi of the Research Unity Institutions and Policies for Science and Technology, at the Institute for Research on Enterprises and the Growth – National, Research Council of Italy, in Rome, points out that the economic field is simply pervasive in modern life and that is an inescapable fact of life, like press release embargoes, peer review delays, and funding cuts, you might say.

He says that in some instances and for some portions of society, the advancement of science and technology might, actually appear to lead to a deterioration of human living conditions. However, as anyone in the know will tell you, it is only the application of science that can solve those problems, whether they’re environmental or medical. No amount of hand waving and hand wringing will clarify water contaminated with arsenic from the bedrock or stifle a viral epidemic.

Nevertheless, he says, “The relation between economic studies, on one hand, and science and technology, on the other hand, is complex and multifaceted.” Measuring the economic effects of scientific and technological advances is an arduous task and there are no simplifactions that can be made in the realm of economics to help. “As a consequence, judgements passed on science policies, often deriving from markedly subjective opinions and questionable interpretations of well-known statistics, are anything but incontrovertible,” he adds. Anyone at the sharp end of funding cuts knows this only too well.

Marchi, M. (2009). Measuring scientific research and technological innovation International Journal of Technology, Policy and Management, 9 (4) DOI: 10.1504/IJTPM.2009.032054

Apologies if you saw this in your feed reader or elsewhere in March 2010 when I first posted it to Sciencebase, but it seems to have been stuck in some kind of draft status limbo and I have now released it.