Max Fochler - How (not) to think about the impact of basic science on society

Max Fochler writes for Vienna Quantum Café on the impact of basic science on society. Max Fochler is associate professor at the Department of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Vienna and member of the Research Platform Responsible Research and Innovation in Academic Practice. His research focuses on the dynamics of science, and in particular on how basic researchers relate their work to different values, among them societal relevance.

How (not) to think about the impact of basic science on society

In science policy, the impact of scientific research on society currently is an important topic. There are a number of related buzzwords and discourses, ranging from the third mission of universities to responsible research and innovation and most recently mission-oriented research. In general terms of course, hardly any academic would contest the idea that science should benefit society. But as so often the devil is in the detail, and in the question of what this concretely means for scientific practice, particularly in basic university science.

An anecdote to illustrate this: a couple of years ago, in an anniversary year, there was a mobile exhibition at our university, with the aim to show the impact research at the university has had over the last century or so. Strikingly, nearly all the impacts displayed were technological products, such as the smartphone. And the accompanying text explained how knowledge produced at the university, partly pre-dating the related products by half a century, made these technologies possible.

There are different ways to read the message of these displays. One which I, also against the background of what we know about innovation, would wholeheartedly agree with is that it is quite unpredictable when and how insights from basic research will turn out to be crucial in devising products or solving problems of societal relevance. Another one is that research only has an impact if it leads to tangible products or changes in society.

This latter view often is at the heart of how impact is conceptualized in research assessment, most notoriously in the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) evaluations. Here, “impact stories” must establish a clear and accountable causal link between research carried out in the last two decades and a tangible product or change in society that occurred in the evaluation period.

My argument is that this latter concept of impact is highly problematic for basic research, and that it also is at odds with central insights in the study of science and innovation dynamics. Here is why:

First, temporalities: We know that in many fields, it may take decades or more until what is today cutting edge basic research indeed becomes relevant in application – if it ever does: innovation is per definition uncertain, as is research. But evaluation has performative effects. If researchers or institutions are evaluated for providing tangible impacts in relatively narrow time frames, this may shift priorities to topics in which this is possible more easily, and overall, from the basic to the applied. However, if there is one institution in current societies that must have an eye on the long term, it is the university. Evaluating basic research must not be coupled to expectations about the temporalities of its impact.

Second, causality: the pathways of innovation are highly complex, and in the fewest cases we can establish solid causal links between basic research and impacts. Expecting to do so also disregards the important efforts of other actors in an innovation ecosystem, ranging from applied research institutions to companies and even state agencies. Also, we should not forget that causality may be linked to responsibility. After all, not every impact is positive. To assume direct accountability of basic research for potential impacts is problematic, even though it is important to think about responsibility in more complex and non-linear ways.

So a focus on tangible products and changes is not a good way to think about the impact of basic science. But this also does not mean that basic science should not think about societal relevance at all. The university is not an ivory tower, and basic researchers should not be ignorant of how their research could be relevant to wider society. But how to do this?

Recent research stresses that interaction is key. Science must be curiosity-driven and autonomous in how it chooses its questions, but at the same time it is productive if researchers develop a better perspective of how and for whom in society their research may become relevant – in positive as well as in negative ways, such as in the case of the dual use of research results. Again, in this respect it is crucial to know that the relation between basic research and innovation in society is not linear and uni-directional. The classic pathway “basic research – applied research – market” is not a good approximation of reality, at least in most cases. Hence it is not enough for scientists to deposit their parcels of knowledge at the virtual doorstep and to assume that mysterious actors will pick them up to develop them further. Innovation happens in interaction.

For an example on how to do this in the natural sciences, and in physics in particular, it may be instructive to go back in time, and to follow the lead of the well chosen name of this very blog – Vienna Quantum café. At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, the area around Währinger Strasse in Vienna, where the faculty of Physics is still located today, was a fascinating experiment in relating science and society. Academics worked in coffeehouses in the area, met with colleagues from their own and other fields as well as citizens, and routinely discussed the relevance of their work in a wider context. The reasons for this were mundane, of course. University offices were badly insufficient, and they lacked proper heating in winter, motivating the professors to seek refuge in more interactive spaces. Still, a lot of impact was made in these spaces. Maybe it is possible to recover some of this spirit today, even without the necessity of turning off the heating…


Two reading tips on science in fin-de-siecle Vienna:

Coen, D. R. (2007). Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty. Science, Liberalism and Private Life. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Rentetzi, M. (2004). The city as a context for scientific activity: creating the Mediziner-Viertel in fin-de-siècle Vienna.Endeavour, 28(1), 39-44. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2004.01.013