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What are the benefits of science?

June 10, 2010

It’s really hard to measure the benefits we get from science. We can always come up with anecdotes to prove that there are benefits sometimes (vaccines! the internet!), but making generalizations is much tougher. What do we get from our $30 billion per year investment in medical research? How much more “good” comes from injecting an extra $3 billion into the National Science Foundation’s budget as part of the stimulus package?

column by Colin MacIlwain in this week’s Nature explores this problem in greater depth. As he points out, we know that innovation drives economic growth, but how does science drive innovation?

Greater difficulty arises in determining what drives the innovation, though. Is it basic research, often publicly funded, as the science advocates contend? Or are other factors, such as the demands of consumers who buy, say, mobile phones or computer games, also involved? And even if scientific research does drive innovation, will more investment in science necessarily speed up the process? Unfortunately, economists concede, no one really knows.

And you shouldn’t trust anyone who claims to know. As MacIlwain points out, a lot of individuals and organizations–including the National Academies of Science–are guilty of making highly dubious claims about the generalized benefits of government funded science. Apparently, if your research touts the value of science to the Nation, the standards of rigor are a little relaxed (great example here).

None of this should be surprising. Most researchers and research institutions directly benefit from public investments in basic science, so there is bound to be a conflict of interest. Even without that conflict of interest, it’s just a really hard problem to study.

Please don’t read this as an argument against public investments in science. Take it instead as a reminder that science is and always will be, a political game played by self interested parties. Grain of salt recommended.

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