Richard Millar is one of IOP’s current policy interns. Here he writes about the value of research funding.
For anyone who is involved with the science policy world of today, the notion of “research impact” will be a very familiar one. The UK research councils, who fund most of the research in UK universities, have made demonstrating impact of proposed research on wider society an essential requirement for a successful grant application.
Whilst the case that the fruits of publicly-funded research are harvested for the public cause remains fundamentally unanswerable, the subsequent interpretation of “impact for the public benefit” leads to a path one has to tread very carefully to avoid easily-walked-into pitfalls…
On 4th July 2012, the emotional scenes at CERN during the seminar announcing the end of the long search for physics’ most elusive star enshrined the date as one hallmarked to impact on the mind-set of a generation. The Higgs boson, the fundamental role it plays in the existence of reality as we know it and the story of the protracted quest to prove its existence has captured the imagination of the world.
The wide-spread fascination with the idea of the Higgs is a fantastic contemporary example of the power of fundamental science to inspire and captivate people like little else. It forms a compelling reminder of the true value to society that we should accord fundamental research in today’s ever-pressurised science budget.
In the prolonged period of stagnant growth that our society is living through today, the “impact” of research is being interpreted mostly in terms of economic impact. Whilst this is understandable in the current economic conditions, this should not necessarily mean it is desirable. After all, surely economic activity should be viewed as a means to an end in achieving and improving quality of life in society and not sought as a goal purely for its own sake? Taking a view from this economic paradigm, the “impact on society” that public funded research proposals should be judged against is their impact on the public quality of life in all its forms.
Undoubtedly monetary issues do play a large role in the quality of life that an individual can lead. It is widely accepted that a certain threshold level of financial well-being is needed to lead a life of higher quality in all other aspects, free from over-arching fiscal worries. It is equally widely acknowledged that, beyond this threshold, other less tangible factors are equally as important as more money. These factors are wide ranging and numerous, from positive relationships with friends and family through to being intellectually inspired and having a sense of purpose.
Fundamental research that delves into the nature of reality and tackles the big questions of our existence has an almost limitless capacity to captivate and enthral human minds. In many aspects, science today fulfils the role that religion did for centuries past, offering an engagement with the nature of the universe and hints at answers to the big questions.
The millennia long tradition of religious practise all around the world is a testament to the impact that engagement with these concepts and ideas can have on people’s lives. We should not neglect the continued importance of this engagement now that science is the premier carrier of the torch toward these ultimate answers. The value of providing insight into the depths of reality and the impacts on intellectual engagement that it creates, should not be forgotten even in these economically chaste times.
The case for funding of research that leads to innovation (in both the short-term and the long term) and hence economic benefit is very clear cut and justifiably so. The funding of innovation-driven research is a fundamental driver of technological advancement and future economic prosperity. Aside from this, as a society we have already accepted the argument that there is worth in spending public money on social programmes that don’t have a purely economic goal.
We rightly see the value in spending public money on promoting participation and elite performance in sport, supporting our national museums and offering financial grants to help arts and culture thrive. Fundamental science has as much potential to impact on social well-being as any of the above. We must avoid the trap of neglecting this benefit of scientific research, as seems to be all the too common at the moment.
In science, the inspiration potential behind new discoveries is often lost due to poor communication of the ideas from the scientists to the public. The challenge for the scientific community is to make the case for valuing this benefit of their research by making their inspirational ideas and discoveries easily available and understandable, in order to be enjoyed by all.
Disclaimer: This post is Richard’s opinion and does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the IOP