How Dare They Hold Us Accountable?

According to the Great Beyond, several prominent British scientists have called for a revolt against new rules that require them to “include a two-page summary of the potential economic and social impacts of their research in funding proposals to the nation’s research councils”. The scientists say that, “In research worthy of the name, we are not aware of anyone who would be competent at foretelling specific future benefits and therefore in complying with the request in any meaningful manner,” to which a representative of one of the grants councils replies, “The impact statement is not designed to ask peer reviewers or applicants to predict future benefits. It is intended to allow the applicant to highlight potential pathways to impact, especially through collaboration with partners, and to help the research councils support them in these activities.”

Regular readers will know how I feel about academic paperwork and bureaucracy, but in this case, I’m on the side of the research councils. Yes, a dollar spent on blue-sky research might one day yield a cure for cancer, but that same dollar spent on primary education for disadvantaged children might one day yield the next Darwin or Einstein. Being paid by the public to chase your ideas wherever they may lead is a privilege, not a right; having to write two pages to explain how those ideas might one day benefit the public seems only fair. (And I have to admit I’m curious how many of the scientists who object to being required to do so simultaneously bemoan the lack of public understanding of science.)