A good Guardian article here that wonders whether scientific research funding is now required to justify its economic returns.
Last month the UK research councils, which provide 90% of the funding for academic research, introduced a requirement for those seeking grants: they must describe the economic impact of the work – the “demonstrable contribution” research can make to society and the economy – they want to conduct.
This is wrong. I’m worried that science proponents may have shot themselves in the foot, though. We’ve been trumpeting science and technology as key to getting out of this economic downturn. But that doesn’t mean that every – or even any – future application of basic research is predictable before it even happens. We don’t know in advance which blue-skies ideas will pay off. Only investing in those where we think we do know is extremely risky.
The economic impact summaries they now write ensure that all researchers will be aware that the business of universities is business. As the white paper points out, universities are already “providing incentives (for example promotion assessment)” to persuade researchers to engage with business. If your research doesn’t make someone money, you’re not likely to get very far.
Even judged by its own objectives, this policy makes no sense. The long-term health of the knowledge economy depends on blue skies research that answers only to itself: when scientists are free to pursue their passions they are more likely to make those serendipitous discoveries whose impacts on society and the economy are both vast and impossible to predict. Forced to collaborate with industry, they are more likely to pursue applications of existing knowledge than to seek to extend the frontiers of the known world.