Science and Impact.

By Peter Dearden 06/04/2015

Peter K. Dearden

I have spent most of today talking about impact. Not the meteorite crashing to earth kind. Nor the punch in the face kind, but the way that science impacts society.
Measuring the value of science is an occupation that is both frustrating and important. Scientists have lots of measures of how good they are; impact factors of journal we publish in, numbers of citations to our published work, occasionally the value of patents we helped produce. All of these measures are flawed, and we gaily pick the ones that make us look best to our employers.
More recently we have been asked to think more about the impacts of our research. Those impacts could be revenue from new ways our work has helped industry, better healthcare outcomes for patients, improvements to social policy etc etc. Impacts are legion, various and complex.
Measuring impact is hard, and it changes with time. A new physics discovery can take 50 to 100 years to be incorporated in a new device that changes the world. Three years from discovery, impact nil. Even more annoyingly your highly impactful research may be superseded by a new way of doing things, leaving it less and less relevant.
So impact, in all its forms, is a flawed measure of the value of science, as are all the others. Science is a weird process that produces value from investment. But what that value is, how much it will be, and what form it will have is pretty hard to predict.
That’s not to say that I think we shouldn’t measure impact. It is vital if we are to show the importance of science to society, policy makers and politicians, that we know what its impact is. We need to know what we have improved by our work and we need to be able to value it.
But can I make a plea that sometimes that value and the impact is in knowing things?
I believe that understanding our world, or past and our future is hugely valuable. I wonder how we measure the impact of all those scientists who have discovered plants and animals of no commercial value, or fossils of long dead animals, or biological processes in cells that are of no exploitable use. Knowing these things enriches our world, and provides the data from which new ideas, theories and ways of improving ourselves will come, but these many not be easily traced back to the scientists who discovered them.
Sometimes, usefully, impact is ‘that’s cool!’