Maximising public benefit from science

Is more funding enough?

Wendy Russell

Government and governance, Science and technology | Australia

5 September 2019

Rather than simply investing in research for short-term return, Australia should more carefully consider the potential benefits of its scientific pursuits, Wendy Russell writes.

Many see the primary focus of science policy as the funding of science. Others focus on the place of science in informing policy, but in democratic societies, the ultimate goal of science policy is to maximise public benefit.

The key, many argue, to increasing public benefit from science is more funding. With less than 2 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product spent on research and development – putting it significantly behind many OECD countries – it’s hard to argue against the need for more investment in science.

However, a focus on budgets and funding can create a policy approach that regards science purely in terms of its return on investment. Science delivers far more than this, and some public benefits from science are in tension with economic goals.

For example, the most lucrative medical research is focused on creating new drugs. Delivering these requires international venture capital, partnership with pharmaceutical companies, and engagement with global markets. How much economic and social benefit Australia sees from this research depends on the drug, what it treats, and how it does this, as well as what returns researchers can secure from powerful international actors.

More on this: Cultivating research expertise for complex policy problems

In the meantime, this research competes with public health research, which provides knowledge for preventative health which, while it brings no immediate return, can provide long-term social and economic benefits.

Simply increasing funding to science provides no guarantee of maximising public benefit, particularly in the absence of a thorough evaluation of how science provides that benefit. Further, Australia needs a collective agreement on what these benefits should be. Science policy needs to be more outcome-oriented.

For this, policymakers and scientists need tools to understand the outcomes that derive from scientific work, in all its variety and those necessary for dialogue and engagement with the wider community to evaluate these outcomes.

Recent changes to research incentives, notably the Research Engagement and Impact agenda, potentially contribute to the evaluation of the outcomes of science in conversation with the public and end-users. The policy places the onus for this engagement and impact assessment with researchers and research organisations, thereby accommodating the enormous variety of scientific work and its outcomes.

More on this: From 'publish or perish' to 'collaborate or crumble'

Whether this variety is valued is another thing, and one of the problems with the policy is that it tends to either conflate economic and social benefit or to position them as separate and distinct. In fact, the relationship between economic and social benefit from most science and innovation is complex and highly varied.

Science and innovation underpin and are central to ‘the structure of society and the fabric of daily life’. As such, the impacts of science are diverse and unpredictable.

Science and technology contribute to a range of benefits, but also to a range of negative impacts, but it’s not as simple as ‘good’ science and ‘bad’ science. Innovation gives rise to both positive and negative outcomes or benefits some groups but not others.

We really need to move away from the trend of thinking that to criticise an area of science is to be ‘anti-science’.

Think about policy – if someone criticises a particular policy, are they ‘anti-policy’? Such criticism is an important aspect of accountability in our political system. Science would benefit from more such accountability, particularly from a robust discussion that moves beyond polarisation.

In this context, it is important to build much better capacity to assess scientific research directions and innovation pathways in terms of their likely – rather than just potential – societal benefits, how these are distributed, and with what outcomes.

This requires better understandings of innovation landscapes and the multiple factors that shape paths and influence science decisions and the ways that science leads to outcomes.

We also need better ways to assess ‘grand challenges’ and to look for solutions that draw from the whole science and innovation system and beyond, rather than simply picking winners. Some trans-disciplinary inquiry that operates within and extends beyond science could achieve this.

So, how can Australia build this engagement and assessment capacity?

The nation needs a culture of responsible innovation and tools to assist scientists to act responsibly. These must be based on a better understanding of the innovation ‘landscapes’ they’re working in.

More on this: Ideas boom to innovation bust?

There must be support from research organisations and funding bodies for outcome-oriented approaches to research decisions. This would include reform of academic incentives.

Investment in new expertise and institutions to assess and understand the innovation system in its complexity and heterogeneity is crucial too and will provide insights and information to scientists and government to inform their decision making.

Australian science also needs greater transparency, accountability, and future vision for science. This can be achieved through two-way engagement with stakeholders and the public and democratic consideration of science and innovation directions.

If society is to reap the public benefits of science and innovation, it can’t take those benefits for granted. Benefits are not delivered through a pipeline but emerge from a complex landscape. Australia needs the capacity to assess and evaluate this landscape and its outcomes, in a robust way.

This demands an ongoing conversation about what the public benefits should be and what kinds of future are desirable as a democratic society.

An ongoing conversation about the public benefits of science, as they affect everyone in the long-term, is what science policy should be built on.

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