Debating the impact of scientific research

A researcher sampling ice on a glacier

I-Hsien Porter

Last week, the UK government announced its spending review. Amongst the cuts, funding for scientific research was frozen at £4.6 bn, representing a cut of less than 10% over four years.

Scientific research has been spared the deep cuts in spending that other areas of government expenditure now face. The justification for this is that scientific research plays a significant contribution to economic recovery and growth.

As a result, certain areas of research have been given priority over others; for example, renewable, low-carbon energy. In an article in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Richard Phillips notes that research is funded based on its ‘impact’. The impact of research may be measured in terms of economic gain or contributions to the public, private or third sectors.

Phillips argues that this isn’t always a good thing. Spending on science is influenced, and in some cases decided, by business, which impinges on the freedom of academics to direct research.

This has led to debate about how potential ‘impacts’ can be measured. Paradoxically, if the purpose of science is to make new discoveries and develop new ideas and products, then it is impossible to measure its impacts in advance of funding decisions to carry out the research in the first place.

As a subject applied to the ‘real world’, geographers are well placed to engage in these debates over how we can have a beneficial impact outside of academia. In turn, it may also be productive to question and critique the motivation and direction of our research.

BBC News (20th October 2010) ‘’Vital’ Science Spared Deep Cuts’

Phillips, R. (2010) ‘The Impact Agenda and Geographies of Curiosity’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 35: 447-452

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