The “Impact” Illusion in Science

Given limited resources for scientific research, grant-making authorities are always tempted to channel a higher proportion of funds toward projects that have demonstrable short-term returns. But to succumb to that temptation is always a mistake.

Editors’ Note: August 4, 2017
Legitimate objections have been raised about the independence and integrity of the commentaries that Henry Miller has written for Project Syndicate and other outlets, in particular that Monsanto, rather than Miller, drafted some of them. Readers should be aware of this potential conflict of interest, which, had it been known at the time Miller’s commentaries were accepted, would have constituted grounds for rejecting them. 

STANFORD – Government-funded scientific research runs the gamut from studies of basic physical and biological processes to the development of applications to meet immediate needs. Given limited resources, grant-making authorities are always tempted to channel a higher proportion of funds toward the latter. And, faced with today’s tight budget constraints, the inclination to favor projects that have demonstrable short-term returns is arguably stronger now than in the past. But to succumb to it is a mistake. Some of science’s most useful breakthroughs have come as a result of sustained investment in basic research or as by-products of unrelated efforts.

Indeed, evaluating the impact of any research project is difficult. As Marc Kirschner, a professor at Harvard Medical School, pointed out in a thoughtful editorial in the journal Science: “One may be able to recognize good science as it happens, but significant science can only be viewed in the rear-view mirror.”

Even preeminent researchers may underestimate the significance of their findings at the time they obtain them. When Salvador Luria, my university microbiology professor, received the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, he made the point eloquently, sending a humorous cartoon to all who had congratulated him on the award. It depicted an elderly couple at the breakfast table. The husband, reading the morning newspaper, exclaims, “Great Scott! I’ve been awarded the Nobel Prize for something I seem to have said, or done, or thought, in 1934!”

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