Jul 7, 2022
Does the Public Benefit from the Scientific Research It Funds?
A new study quantifies how U.S. taxpayer-funded research is used in patents, media, and policy decisions.
Consider public parks: governments fund their creation and maintenance via taxpayer funding, and the public can visit them for free or little charge, reaping the benefit of the investment.
Science, similarly, is considered a public good in the U.S., funded largely by the government. Yet much of the public funding of science goes to researchers toiling away in labs, sometimes on obscure projects. This can make it difficult for the public to know if we’re benefiting from the science we’re funding.
Indeed, past research has called into question whether what happens in the halls and labs of academic and research institutes actually benefits the public, and policymakers have criticized the National Science Foundation for funding some research that may lack relevance to the general public.
Part of the problem is just how challenging it is to systematically quantify the practical value of scientific research. But in a new paper, the Kellogg School’s Benjamin Jones, a professor of strategy, and Dashun Wang, a professor of management and organizations, set out to do just this.
Wang and Jones collaborated with Northwestern doctoral student Yian Yin, along with Yuxiao Dong and Kuansan Wang of Microsoft Research. They looked at scientific publications across all major domains and then used government documents, news media, and patent data to understand if and how this research is being used by the public.
They found widespread connectivity between scientific research and future public use. Further, the funding of scientific fields correlates closely with public use of the research within those fields. For example, the subfields of computer science that are relatively likely to see their papers cited in future patents tend to have higher average funding per paper.
Wang succinctly sums up the findings this way: “We scientists aren’t doing useless stuff!”
Science as a Public Good
Quantifying something as large and amorphous as the practical value of scientific research is not for the faint of heart.
The Kellogg researchers took on this challenge by using five large-scale datasets to link scientific publications to both their “upstream” funding support and their “downstream” public use.
“What the public uses, what scientists use, and what is funded are remarkably consistent.”
— Benjamin Jones and Dashun Wang
The research covered millions of the scientific papers that were funded by the U.S. government and published between 2005 and 2014. The team examined whether the papers were mentioned in three specific public arenas: mentions in federal government documents as a measure of policymaking applicability; mentions in patents to examine practical technology applications; and mentions in the mainstream media to measure broader public interest and “news we can use” pieces.
Divergent Uses, Universal Value
The findings suggest differential use of scientific results across the three public domains. For example, computer-science and mathematical findings are more likely to be applied to patents than policymaking, while social-science results—from economics, psychology, and other fields—show up less often in patents but more in policymaking and media domains. Biology was unique in its representation across all three public domains studied. (As the researchers put it, biology is like a “Yellowstone Park” of science, attracting a broad range of users across public domains.)
Next the study considered whether the public is more likely to use ideas that scientists themselves see as higher-impact. Here, the researchers found strong alignment between hit papers within science—those in the top one percent by number of citations in their field—and public usage.
This result held true in all research domains and in all three public domains, indicating widespread alignment between what scientists consider impactful and what the public absorbs. In the era of misinformation, these findings stand in contrast to concerns that the public is poorly equipped to engage high-quality science.
Finally, the study examined the funding of scientific research, to get at the return-on-investment question. The researchers calculated average funding per paper in a given subfield, then studied how public funding and public use varied across all of science. They found strong associations between the public funding and public use of science, suggesting a meaningful return on investment.
Overall, the researchers conclude, “what the public uses, what scientists use, and what is funded are remarkably consistent.”
A Path to Future Findings
The findings suggest that the concern that science is not living up to its status as a public good is unfounded. As the authors note, “the connections between the ivory tower and the real world appear more aligned than is commonly imagined.”
Moreover, Jones and Wang explain that this work points to the value of using the unprecedented data available today to answer even more questions about science as a public good.
“High-scale datasets allow us to trace science’s impact in previously unattainable ways, shedding new light on the role of science in society,” Jones says.
Wang adds, these new data and computational tools allow us to study the use of scientific discoveries in fundamentally new ways. “That’s the brighter future this work represents.”
Sachin Waikar is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinois.
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