Elsea and I attended a talk on Monday hosted by the Westminster Skeptics in the Pub, where Professor Brian Cox (of BBC’s Wonders of the Solar System fame) and Dr Evan Harris (Liberal Democrat and member of the science and technology committee) gave a talk on science policy in the coming general elections.
There was a lot of talk about something Brian Cox called the ‘impact agenda’, which basically covers the notion that funding for scientific research should be given on the basis of the ‘impact’ it will have on society, in other words the amount of ‘benefit’ that would ensue from the research. Generally, in a big picture kind of way, I personally feel that this is a good thing, as this is an effort to ensure that science spending is targeted in a way that provides the most benefit to us.
However, and this is a point that Brian Cox stressed, it is very difficult to measure the full benefits of any particular science research before it happens. Benefits can be very wide ranging and difficult to capture.
Many people felt (and still feel) that the US wasted a lot of money ($25 billion in the 1960s, worth about $100 billion today) sending men to the moon. “How did it benefit us?” is a very valid question, one which Chase Econometric Associates attempted to answer in 1976. They came up with a ratio of 14:1… that is that for every dollar spent on the Apollo mission, the US public received a benefit of $14. By 1976, research from the moon mission had already benefitted the aereospace industry, computer industry, car industry and international communications industry, just to name a few. I have no doubt that technological advances of today still owe their existence to the Apollo mission (and we haven’t even covered the scientific research and technology that we currently have that were discovered and invented by little boys and girls who watched the moon landing and grew up wanting to be physicists or engineers, or the little boys and girls that they have inspired in turn).
I doubt people at the time could have predicted that the $25 billion they had spent sending men to the moon would bring so much benefit to those of us living in their future and similarly, it is very difficult for us to imagine the benefits that so-called ‘blue skies’ research can bring to people in the future.
Scientists can and by all means should make an attempt to value the end products of research, to make themselves accountable to the public and show them what they are doing and the benefits they can expect to glean from it. However, the value of the potential of blue skies research is much greater than what we can currently define and value; the blue skies research of the last three centuries has completely changed the human race’s way of living. While the benefits that can be identified now are limited by what we think is applicable today, the greater benefits of scientific research are likely to go beyond our current imagination.
As Brian Cox said, economic analysis of the benefits of scientific research is difficult, if not impossible. But economic analysis is never intended to be the only input decision-making but simply one of the inputs. Therefore, the impossibility of identifying all the likely benefits of research that has not yet carried out, and the difficulties of estimating the economic value of those that are identified should not hinder science funding. The intention is that valuing what benefits that can be identified helps make a supporting case for research.
Coming up next in Big Bang for your Buck – Part II: Elsea explores how we can get the cow to jump over the moon without re-breaking the bank(s).