Value judgements

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
473,
Pages:
123–124
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/473123b
Published online

The scientific endeavour needs to deliver public value, not just research papers.

The concept of a return on research investment has acquired a sharper edge since the global financial slump began. But an assessment of those returns should include more than knowledge for its own sake and economic growth — as highlighted by a timely series of articles in the latest issue of the journal Minerva.

Under the intellectual and editorial leadership of the policy scientists Barry Bozeman of the University of Georgia in Athens and Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University in Tempe, the journal presents case studies that analyse a broader way to measure returns on investment: public values. These public values include not only the commonly discussed knowledge and economic criteria, but also information useful to decision-makers, participation in agenda-setting by stakeholders and communication to the public in general. In fields as diverse as hurricane research and nanomedicine, the contributors demonstrate how initial ambitions to target these values get lost as projects unfold. Too often, the pull of the heavyweight 'science for its own sake' and economic agendas crushes wider intentions.

“The notion that society considers any advance in knowledge to be inherently good cannot be sustained.”

Policy-makers, funders and scientists should take note. For example, a paper by Ryan Meyer, also a policy scientist at Arizona State University, focuses on the failure of the US government's Global Change Research Program to deliver broad public value (Minerva 49, 47–70; 2011). Basing his studies on public statements and private interviews with researchers and political decision-makers, Meyer says that US climate programmes have in the past two decades benefited from public investment of more than US$30 billion, but have largely failed to produce information and participation in the forms that policy-makers and the public wanted. The notion that society considers any advance in knowledge to be inherently good — even if the science fails to meet the objectives and priorities it was meant to address — cannot be sustained, says Meyer.

Coincidentally, at a workshop last week in Hamburg, Germany, a gathering of climate scientists, policy experts and philosophers of 'post-normal science' articulated a similar perspective. Science becomes 'post-normal' when facts are uncertain, stakes high, values in dispute and decisions urgent; in such cases, societal needs must be taken into account to avoid costly mistakes. Climate research certainly fulfils this definition. But, according to the workshop participants, most climate researchers continue to act as if purely scientific values are, and will always be, adequate to set the agenda.

Instead, researchers and, especially, their funders must embrace the idea that public and stakeholder participation can help to define research priorities. And they must do more to track and communicate all outcomes. Policy-makers need to ensure that those with direct needs for climate-related information — businesses, regional planners, government departments — have a greater say in the kind of services and knowledge that they expect publicly funded researchers to produce, and in assuring the quality and relevance of what is delivered.

The agenda here is to broaden rather than restrict climate research: to ensure that, alongside studies driven by the priorities of creative scientific imaginations, research also enhances public confidence in society's use of science. A fuller consideration of these issues will also maximize science's public value, in the form of successful collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, delivery of information useful to stakeholders, and transparency and well targeted communication.

Grant-giving agencies need to take a fresh look at how to address these issues. Lay representation in decision-making, as has already been tried on a limited scale at the US National Institutes of Health, is one way to increase public involvement. Previous exercises in engagement on nanotechnology have led to positive, albeit restricted, outcomes (see Nature 448, 12; 2007).

But the problem goes deeper than public engagement. The Global Change Research Program has involved stakeholders at various stages, but, says Meyer, “it is not clear that the US currently has the institutional capacity to achieve the public values promised about climate science”. If that is indeed the issue then, given the sheer scale and breadth of US capacity in these topics, one has to wonder whether anyone will be able to achieve what these authors are seeking.

As is often the case, policy researchers are good at identifying problems but slower to reveal how to improve matters. To his credit, Meyer offers some practical ways for the programme to improve the leverage of, and incentives for, a broader participation in delivering public value.

More importantly, these studies highlight a significant deficit in current typical appraisals of science and technology outcomes. They should serve as cautionary tales about the danger of scientists' interests, deliberately or otherwise, becoming too dominant in determining outcomes. And they introduce ways to assess failures in social returns on investment that, one can only hope, will help to improve science's public value.

Comments

  1. Report this comment #21840

    Xianfa Xie said:

    "The scientific endeavour needs to deliver public value, not just research papers."

    Fully agree! The only purpose for any scientific research, particularly those funded publicly, should be (1) to generate real knowledge; (2) to use that knowledge to meet the society's need for food, water, safe living, convenient traveling, environmental protection, biodiversity conservation, and good policy-making.

    But even the first goal, to acquire knowledge, is hard to achieve in today's academic (including publication) environment, as not all papers published contribute to real knowledge, and not all real knowledge gets published or noticed.

    The information age we live in has produced both true and false information in our world, the supposed gate-keeping process by peer reviewers and editors in scientific publication has not been successful to select for the gold grains and discard the debris either.

    When the ultimate purpose of scientific research becomes publishing papers, some of which do not contribute to but instead pollute real knowledge, scientific enterprise is corrupted and science is on the way to perish, both of which will then be rejected by the public. That is the real peril of science!

  2. Report this comment #22035

    Anurag chaurasia said:

    On advise of Editor,Correspondence i am submitting my views here
    Judgements For Value Oriented Research
    In the present situation of global economic slowdown it has become essential to move toward value oriented research. Public value of a research output need not be in economic term only but it should have a broader perspective as leading to any improvement in life standard of public or the society as a whole. Time frame for value output also need to be debated. Critical impartial judgement for value oriented research output has become essential. Scientific research need to be delinked from the paper publication industry for which scientist promotion should be linked to public value added research output rather than to publication only. This will only be possible when project sanctioning & scientific output evaluating committees give more marks to value added research rather than to publications. The sprit for value oriented research need to be inculcated from the student life & beginning of the scientific carrier itself. Scientists making discovery toward public value oriented research need to be recognised & rewarded this will be a motivating factor for other scientific professionals too.

    Correspondence for Nature Editorial "Value Judgements" published in Nature Volume 473 Number 7346 pp123-248 dated 12 May 2011

    Contact Details of the author

    Anurag chaurasia
    Scientist (Biotechnology)
    National Bureau of Agriculturally Important Microorganisms (NBAIM)
    Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Govt. of India
    Kusmaur, Mau Nath Bhanjan, Uttar Pradesh, India-275101

    anurag_vns1@yahoo.co.in anurag@nbaim.org.in +919452196686 (Mobile) +915472530080 (Phone-off) +915472530358 (Teli-Fax-off) +915472530381 (Fax-off) www.nbaim.org.in (Website)
  3. Report this comment #34673

    Linette Merina said:

    In the present situation of global economic slowdown it has become essential to move toward value oriented research. Public value of a research output need not be in economic term only but it should have a broader perspective as leading to any improvement in life standard of public or the society as a whole. Time frame for value output also need to be debated. Critical impartial judgement for value oriented research output has become essential.shar pei dog
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  4. Report this comment #40791

    Rob Hunter said:

    This may come accross as somewhat elitist, but I don't intend it so. The general public are likely to be unaware as to what research is and is not needed. it is just sheer luck that applied research turns up something really fundamental in science, like when practical research was done into improving steam engines leading to the Laws of Thermodynamics.
    Scientists know best where their ignorances lie. If all science becomes "what can we get out of it", then pure or basic research, which may solve a knotty practical problem in -say-cancer research, will never be funded. The most sensible strategy to gain scientific knowledge is to look at problems evenly, so that science progresses without too many large gaps.
    Besides, science becomes too political if it is ALL about short terms needs, and is likely to be subject to people's prejuduces, ideologies, and religious convictions.
    I don't think anyone [even most scientists] want their research [or at least all of it], to be "ivory tower" and impractical. They are humans and get a warm glow when science helps people, especially where it prevents or reduces harm.
    I am just scared the pendulum may well swing too far in the other direction. Government often picks up on research that it unlikly to give short term benefits, whatever its long term merits. I can't see private enterprise doing a lot of that. Which means it won't get done. So if you have a rare disease, watch out, because if government can no longer afford, or want to do such research, then I don't like your chances competing against the Viagra market.

  5. Report this comment #45056

    Kalo Franky said:

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  6. Report this comment #55064

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  7. Report this comment #55065

    ????? ???????? said:

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