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Measuring Value: University-Based Research and National Needs

The European Science Open Forum, or ESOF, came to Dublin the other week. ESOF is Europe’s largest general science meeting and is held in a leading Europe city every two years. The Dublin event followed that of Stockholm in 2004, Munich (2006), Barcelona (2008) and Turin (2010). Copenhagen will host the event in 2014.

It was hugely successful, provoking wide-ranging discussions and debate about science and technology, not only amongst the 4,000-plus delegates but also the wider Irish public. I had a great conversation with a taxi driver about James Watson, the American molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist, best known as a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA in 1953, who was jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

An underlying theme of ESOF was the role of science and technology in society and public policy. The balance – or rather the tension – between scientific discovery and societal needs has become increasingly tense in the decades since Vannevar Bush, director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development under Franklin D. Roosevelt, published Science, The Endless Frontier in 1945. His focus was on the necessity for closely aligning fundamental scientific research with social and economic progress.

This alignment has underpinned the tremendous expansion of university-based research in the intervening years, and sealed the “social contract” between the taxpayer, structured governmental research financing, and the research community. Science would be privileged as long as there were expectations of usefulness. Use of the term “science” by Bush – and the ESOF conference – effectively marginalized the arts, humanities, and social sciences, presumably on the assumption that these disciplines do not contribute to social or economic progress – a point I will return to in a future blog.

In the decades since 1945, university-based research has come to be viewed not simply as the driver of economic growth but a vital part of the research-innovation ecosystem. The concept of the “knowledge economy” based on the application of scientific knowledge as the key source of economic and political power, and social and individual prosperity is now the main policy paradigm across Europe, and around the world. This correlation is strongly promoted by OECD, World Bank, Unesco, the European Union, etc. – and every national government.

Because the creation of new knowledge is primarily located within higher education, the university has assumed huge significance. If higher education is the “engine of the economy,” the severity of the global economic crisis has reignited the debate about being accountable and ensuring value-for-money and return on (taxpayer) investment. The spotlight is now firmly placed not just on performance and productivity but on assessing the value, impact, and benefit of research. Ideally, this spotlight should have been in place from the beginning; the danger is that the spotlight will be entirely driven by the impact on macroeconomic indicators.

The intensity of scrutiny arguably follows from an inflation of promises made by the academic community to justify spending taxpayer’s money and/or to attract foundation funds or venture capital. Often these “promises” were innocently made in response to questions about the significance of the research or opportunities for dissemination. Nonetheless, it’s a good example of being careful what you wish for. In a period of austerity and pathways for recovery, it’s payback time.

Traditionally, academic research output has been measured by peer publications and its impact has been judged by citations. Taking Google Scholar’s adage, citations are a demonstration of “standing on the shoulder of giants.” But, that’s peer accountability rather than social accountability. Today there are calls for closer alignment between higher education, research, economic priorities, short-term impact and job creation. There is increased emphasis on a “market-driven approach.”

The Irish National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 asserted the interlocking importance of teaching and research, and the importance of investment across all disciplines to maintain a broad base of knowledge. However, its approach has been eclipsed by the Report of the Research Prioritization Group. The prioritization report identified 14 science and technologies fields giving only passing reference to policy research in a few select fields, and “research for knowledge.” Horizon 2020, the E.U.’s new €80-billion strategy for research and innovation to drive to create new growth and jobs in Europe, has a similar emphasis. It speaks of bridging the gap between research and the market through the development of technological breakthroughs and the translation into viable products with real commercial potential.

This shift in emphasis means it will no longer be possible to rely on the L’Oreal rationale: “because we’re worth it.” Implementation poses profound challenges, with transformation being felt across higher-education and research systems – but isn’t that the point?

•    Greater emphasis on those disciplines – and institutions – which are best able to respond to the science and technology agenda will bring change to universities and colleges. This is likely to privilege particular disciplines, and influence institutional resource allocation models and academic recruitment with spill-over effects on the breadth of educational provision. It is also likely to encourage further shift seeing higher education as a public good, as institutions and researchers become increasingly rent-seeker. Nonetheless, the U.K. government has said it will safeguard educational and research support for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Budget cuts will disproportionately hit the arts, humanities, and social sciences hard.

•    The emphasis on “relevance” is likely to impact on the choice of research topics, project design and selection, career appointment and progression, etc. Social impact or economic benefits can be difficult to measure beyond the usual suspects of patents, licenses and high-performance start-up (HPSU) companies. It also ignores the fact that impact occurs in complex and unpredictable ecologies and time-scales, and is by its very nature not known apriori. Nonetheless, in Ireland, all research proposals will in future be subjected to a two-tier evaluation process, of which the first threshold will be alignment with one of the 14 priority areas.

Increasing government steerage of higher-education and research systems, and the privileging of scientific and technological knowledge are raising genuine alarm. However, there is little disputing the fact that higher education is being asked, in my opinion correctly, to respond more directly to societal needs: sustained, embedded, and reciprocal engagement beyond campus walls, discovery which is useful beyond the academic community and service that directly benefits the public.

I will look at how this is being done in my next blog.

[Creative Commons licensed Wikimedia image by Isabelle Grosjean]

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