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Putting a value on fundamental research

Drayson etc.jpg
Blue-sky thinkers Lord Drayson (centre) promotes the economic-impact of science

By James Dacey

It is very well-documented that the World Wide Web emerged as an incredibly successful “by-product” of the blue-skies research carried out at CERN. But should all scientists be required to justify their funding by the “impact” of their work on the rest of society?

A new proposal by the UK government would mean that every application for a research grant will require the researchers to detail the direct benefits of their work on the economy, public policy, and a number of other realms.

At a public event in London last night Lord Drayson, the UK Science Minister, was met with a number of concerns from UK researchers who have taken issue with the new scheme.

“We need to change the way we do science in this country. It is perfectly reasonable to expect scientists to do more to demonstrate the importance of what they do,” Drayson told the audience.

“Science should be accountable where science is funded by the tax-payer.

“[The new scheme] is asking people within their grant applications to think about the impact they give and to describe it,”

Perhaps offended by the tone of Drayson’s comments, several people argued that researchers already do this sort of thing as an intrinsic part of their work. One member of the audience dismissed the new scheme as nothing more than “box-ticking” by the Government.

A major sticking point is whether researchers should be assessing the impact of the work that they have already done or the impact of the research they hope to carry out, as this is apparently unclear under the new proposals.

“It would be lovely if we did have a crystal ball which could predict the future applications of our research, but the reality is that most research simply does not work this way as many benefits result from serendipity,” said Colin Stuart an astronomer working at The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, who was also on the panel.

Blue Skies ahead? The prospects for UK science, was hosted by the Wellcome Collection in central London and the event was chaired by Brian Cox, the CERN physicist and presenter of a number of popular science programmes in the UK. You can watch a recording of the debate online.

Earlier yesterday evening, Cox tackled Drayson on the issue of science and economic-impact as part of a new BBC radio series The Infinite Monkey Cage, which you can listen to here.

If you want to have your say regarding the proposed reform then the consultation will run until 16 December. Whatever comes out of this, however, I’m sure many UK physicists will still be left wondering how the Government will put a price on some of the true blue-sky research such as the search for the Higgs.

Higgs Boson Will UK money continue to fund the search for him/her indefinitely?

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  1. Obviously it’s a tremendously difficult task to put a price on finding the Higgs and what we may discover en route, but the fact is that there we have a limited science budget whose size and allocation needs to be determined. Stating that it is difficult is not a solution—what we need is evidence-based science funding.
    More on that, and some of the other points covered, in my write-up of debate.

  2. Oh, come on, guys, James, Lord Drayson and others involved, as if you don’t know the real reason behind the current ultimately corrupt situation in science and its zero efficiency. Any nation just cannot avoid feeding those who call themselves “scientists”, irrespective of usefulness of their activity. Because otherwise there is an easy way to avoid various estimate ambiguities. Let’s just have a look at long enough activity of present “scientists” until now, including many their “top-level” representatives. We know very well what we can only find there: proven useless, senseless, misleading games, particularly grotesque and dominating in fundamental physics today, but also useless and dangerous in other fields of science considered officially “very promising” and consuming astronomic investments (have a look at only one last evidence, by a high science professional, even though I doubt of the problem solution he proposes). So, Lord Drayson, Sir, if you are really so honest as your various positions can only imply, you should opt for a considerable human and conceptual “refreshment” of all British scientific departments (and the same for other countries and their respective authorities, of course). It’s clear that nobody will even try anything like that, as always strongly over-producing system prefers to waste its money on such zero-efficiency science than on other, probably equally low-result matters, and it especially prefers not to change essentially anything, even when the need for serious change becomes evident, vital, pressing, urgent… Well, in Britain, you have at least the superior, royal power, just for such cases … lol
    And science journalists, writers and other “supporting” staff apparently feel forced to participate in the same ultimately useless show (even though the “true” profession of journalist as such should serve the opposite purpose), as they are but parts of the same, effectively totalitarian system of science (within full liberal democracy) and taste from the same pie. You’re not science journalists, guys, you’re Soviet journalists, where only very “mild” criticism is permitted but no serious doubt about the system as such… Anyway, James, what do you think about modern science definition as a way of comfortable existence of all those who consider themselves to be scientists? Because such is the real, “post-modern” way of today’s official science, without any relation with the still formally assumed search for objective truth driven by objectivity (consistency) alone…

  3. parisbingo

    what science is the minister talking about ? economy ? finance ? sociology ? art history ? medieval studies ? psychology ? .. should I go on?

  4. David d'Enterria

    Drayson’s ideas would have never funded A. Einstein’s General Relativity and we wouldn’t have working communication satellites. To just mention one simple case … Most of the applications of fundamental science are intrinsically unpredictable. Does this guy deserve the ‘Lord’ and ‘Ministry’ titles without knowing such basic things ?!

  5. Gary Ansorge

    Engineers justify their work with blue sky economic projections.
    Basic research is playful inspection of the nature of reality.
    The two are not concomitant endeavors. Any attempt to estimate future returns from basic research is equivalent to pre-determining the value of an infant.
    Gary 7


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