Jun 29, 2014

Impact, funding, and Nasruddin's key

Cybersightings, Sept. 2013

In his Science editorial (A perverted view of 'impact,' Science, 2013 Jun 14, p. 1265), cell biologist and biochemist Marc Kirschner warns against National Institute of Health's recent introduction of ''impact and significance'' as an explicit criterion to funding decisions.

According to Kirschner, overemphasis on short-term impact (especially in fundamental research) can lead applicants to overstate potential benefits of their proposals. Moreover, as Kirschner notes, scientists working in fundamental research can rarely anticipate future applications of their eventual discoveries. A further risk related to the introduction of this criterion is that increasing investments in areas that are considered impactful will in-evitably decrease resources for other fields. As a result, diversity in science will be reduced as well as productivity.

Although I tend to resonate with Kirschner's general argument, I also believe that there are compelling reasons in favor of introducing (maintaining) impact as a criterion in funding decisions.

First, at least some scientists, if not all of them, might have a clear view about the significance of their research.

Second, resources for science are scarce. Since choices need to be made, concentrating funding on research that has more promising applications is meaningful. As in the popular Nasruddin's tale, no matter where we may have lost the key, we all prefer to begin under the street light where we can see—and so it is for funding bodies.

Third, however, this strategy does not prevent the fact that some resources are dedicated to high risk/high impact projects; see, as an example, the European Commission Future and Emerging Technologies Flagships' initiatives.

Fourth, the growing gap between science and the public could be reduced if researchers would better explain the significance of their work for society. This is especially true in times of economic depression: early evidence suggests that citizens of regions more affected by crisis are more likely to express support for increases in government investments in research (L. Sanz-Menéndez, G. G. Van Ryzin, Economic crisis and public attitudes toward science: a study of regional differences in Spain. Public Underst Sci. 2013 Jun 21).

We are aware that impact and significance are ill-defined concepts. However, researchers are good at measuring things. They could put more effort in trying to define better indicators for these issues, making impact review a less arbitrary system.

 

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