9th of Nov: On the fruitful harvest of knowledge

My outsider's take on some issues relating to responsible research innovation. Hint: I am skeptical.

I spent most of this past week on the living room sofa stuffing Kleenex up my nose—so no lab work to recount. Instead: Philosophy.

On the Bioscience School list server, there were various messages about something called “Responsible Research and Innovation” that UK funders are increasingly demanding from their grantees. For example, see this. This seems to be related to what the USA’s National Science Foundation demands from each grantee in a section called “Broader Impacts”. In the NSF’s case, this demand is motivated by wanting to get the science out of the laboratory, with any destination encouraged, be it classroom, newspaper, or factory. The Responsible Innovation movement recognizes an ethical imperative for scientists to give something back to their community in return for their grant cash.

Although they sound like mom and apple pie (two things that no American can be against), Broader Impacts bother me. For one thing, I trained as a plant physiologist. I got an advanced degree in the subject and then worked for six years as an apprentice (strictly speaking, as a “postdoc”). Based on that lot, I have a reasonable idea about outstanding problems in this science and I am doing my best to solve one or two of them. For example: How does a plant stem get longer without out also getting fatter (then it would turn it into something like a pumpkin)? This is a question that I can argue is worth spending time and money trying to answer for the science.

I did not train as a sociologist or as a journalist or as an entrepreneur. Is there money to be made from understanding how a stem grows? I have no idea. Should I really have to add finance and accounting to my studies of osmosis and biomechanics? Is plant stem growth the kind of subject that could ignite the embers of a child’s imagination? Maybe in the hands of a skilled teacher. Oh I see – along with finance, I have to learn how to teach youngsters. To the extent that I am good at plant physiology, it seems dubious that I can become good at business and school teaching too. Isn’t that asking a lot of me? And doesn’t it disparage teachers and businesspeople who have to train long and hard to do what they do? Why not support school teachers directly?

The above is largely a practical problem. I also have misgivings on the philosophical level. According to what I understand of Responsible Innovation, I am supposed to choose research questions explicitly to help society; but who defines what counts as help? Oral contraceptives are a boon to progressives but a bane to Catholics. In the USA, a big push to insist on “economically important” science is, in fact, right-wing code for de-funding sociologists and climate-ologists, whose research results are typically at odds with Conservative ideology. If I believe that the earth is overpopulated and headed for ecocide, doesn’t “Responsible Innovation” compel me to invent a super pathogenic bacillus to ease the deadly peril?

Even if the granting agencies are willing to call these political shots, no wind blows entirely ill, and no good is unalloyed. Cure a disease and increase population; invent a gadget and put people out of work. Returning to oral contraceptives, these hormones are peed into the water supply at concentrations that are apparently high enough to wreck havoc on the reproduction of fish and frogs. Probably, one can argue that humans are so damaging that curtailing their population trumps amphibian birth defects but these arguments are fraught. Understanding how to help society is difficult and I argue has to be seen as a political act, not a scientific one. Asking a scientist to be a school teacher, entrepreneur, or a politician dilutes their job as a scientist and is anyway unlikely to generate good teaching, business, or policy.

The thing I find most troubling about Broader Impacts and their ilk is the idea that discovery is somehow not enough. We need “value added” in the form of social or economic relevance. This “return on investment” language mischaracterizes the role of university research. Why do we call ourselves a University”? Because, from historians as well as the particle physicists, we hope for our work to be universal.

From the mid-1700’s for more than 200 years, inventors worked hard to improve the slide-rule, making ingenious devices, and sometimes good money; but five years after the appearance of the first electronic calculator in 1972, all of these ideas and inventions were forgotten completely. In contrast, over the same 200 years, a few mathematicians were calculating digit after digit of pi, using those very slide-rules until computers came along. Obsessively enumerating pi to gazillions of digits seems like the poster child for research devoid of economic (or social) relevance. But surprise! The digits of pi turn out to be among the most random of random numbers and are now underlying encryption in many areas of internet commerce; from utterly useless to incalculably valuable in a heartbeat.

The digits of pi tell us that you never know which truth will be useful and when. Above all, those grinding out the digits and those improving encryption are distinct people. The first group creates something universal, true for all time (if you ever wind up trying to converse with an alien life form and don’t have a babel fish in your ear, writing out pi digits would make a fine start). The second group takes advantage of extant knowledge to solve a problem. This is useful but temporary, lasting only until the next hacker assault. The University is supposed to support the first group, generating knowledge that is true. Validity, not utility, is the watchword of the University.

Moreover, that second group, the inventors, depend on the first group. Invention thrives on digesting a healthy diet of basic research. Since the start of the modern University (say mid 1800’s) there has been a phenomenal synergy between scientists figuring out universal truths deep in their universities and inventors and industrialists applying a few of these truths in their factories. Yes, not all of the truths prove nourishing to innovation. But that, as they say, is life. You cannot short-circuit the process by demanding that scientists choose to work on only the useful truths. If you want golden eggs, you have to put up with the goose. Forcing scientists into explicitly useful research will diminish our output of valid results, and will thereby, ironically, diminish the fruitful harvest of knowledge.

3 thoughts on “9th of Nov: On the fruitful harvest of knowledge”

  1. Another_skeptic says:

    Isn’t this just another route by which the humanities can access all that yummy STEM money?
    Also – given that Universities in the US and the UK now employ over 50% of their staff as administrators rather than teachers or administrators it may just be another ratchet in that direction.

  2. Another_skeptic says:

    That should be rather than teachers or ‘researchers’ – sorry, an administrator popped up to replace the researcher -ooo just like real life….

  3. Homo Neanderthal says:

    I agree – arguably the most ethical thing that a vegetarian can do is develop a virus that kills all pigs, cows, chickens etc… That would also be rather pointedly impactfully ethical from the global warming standpoint…

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