Apr 15, 2013

The Value of Science


The number of publications and citations, possibly rescaled into more complex relations like the Hirsch-index or fashionable derivatives thereof, are widely accepted parameters to quantify ,scientific quality‘.  In times of scarce financial resources, transparency is imperative for allocating funds, and it is more than understandable that substantial investments in science are best legitimized by ,useful‘ research results.
 This goes along with the belief that scientific quality can somehow be objectively measured and the whole process of 'doing science' can ultimately be subjected to some sort of controlling.  While the drive for excellence and usefulness is agreed upon - their definition and measurability, however, is far from clear.
It seems rather straightforward to translate usefulness into technological applicability of the research results, favouring in general strictly application-orientated and and even product-driven applied research over basic research, which often is seen as costly dabbling of excentric scientists.This rather economic understanding of scientific value is bemoaned in a desperate note by Abraham Flexner: „We hear it said with tiresome iteration that ours is a materialistic age, the main concern of which should be the wider distribution of material goods and worldly opportunities“ at a speach as founding director of Princeton‘s Institute for Advanced Study in1939.
If usefulness equals monetary return it is worth while looking at the most fundamental and academic research endeavours of the highest quality.  Scanning the Nobel prizes in physics of the last century turns up a majority of science that is predominantly curiosity-driven and that was of pure academic interest at the time it was undertaken. Today, however, the market-value of x-rays, radioactivity, electron-rays,  x-ray diffraction, nuclear fission, and of course semiconductors can not be overstimated. Every one of these discoveries opened markets worth billions and billions of dollars, dwarfing the return on investment of the ubiquitous 'mp3-code' that is quoted at nauseam as one of the more successful patents from applied research in Germany.
Product driven application oriented research ultimately encourages iterative optimizations well within the  borders of the known. Fundamental research, on the other hand, has the potential for real disruption and a leap in technology - the basis for innovation. Only together technological advance is achievable.
As obvious as this might be, research funding is focusing on the planable, forseeable - and this can be most easily spotted at applied research. The common research project demands for milestones and interim reports and justifications are expected if goals are not reached. This drives grant-applications into the mainstream. If the results are predictable, if the milestones are reachable, if the project is rather risk-free an application looks promising to take the hurdles of scientific refereeing and pass critical examination of the funding agency‘s grant officers. But this is the opposite of innovation.
Scientific research is never more than an option on a return. The value of this option certainly depends on a number of variables that are seen as indicators for good science: a prolific research team (as measured by the number of publications) and high scientific standards (which might be inferred from the acceptance in the scientific community, reflected by the number of citations, the frequency of invited talks - generally, the impact of the group).  But as has been suggested in analogy to pricing models for options on goods in the world of investment banking, the optional return increases also with the volatility of the research results (an indicator of the innovative potential) and the time allowed to pass (see "Der W€rt der Wissenschaft", Gegenworte 27, 54-56, 2012) - parameters that hint at the dynamic and sometimes volatile nature of research but are not commonly taken into account.

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