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NSF Begins a Push to Measure Societal Impacts of Research

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Science  21 Apr 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5772, pp. 347
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5772.347b

When politicians talk about getting a big bang for the buck out of public investments in research, they assume it's possible to measure the bang. Last year, U.S. presidential science adviser John Marburger disclosed a dirty little secret: We don't know nearly enough about the innovation process to measure the impact of past R&D investments, much less predict which areas of research will result in the largest payoff to society (Science, 29 April 2005, p. 617). He challenged social scientists to do better.

Next month, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will invite the community to pick up the gauntlet. A Dear Colleague letter from David Lightfoot, head of NSF's social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) directorate, will describe an initiative tentatively dubbed “the science of science policy.” NSF is also holding three workshops for researchers to lay the intellectual foundations for the initiative. By fall, NSF hopes to have $6.8 million from Congress as a down payment on what Lightfoot envisions as “a significant program” that would eventually support a half-dozen large research centers at U.S. universities and scores of individual grants.

In its 2007 budget request, released in February, NSF says the initiative will give policymakers the ability to “reliably evaluate returns received from past R&D investments and to forecast likely returns from future investments.” Lightfoot cautions against expecting too much precision. “One shouldn't overstate this goal,” he says. “Nobody is under the illusion that we're going to be able to hand these decisions over to the computers.” But he believes that it should be possible to develop “a more evidence-based understanding of what happens to our R&D investments.”

NSF officials have outlined a series of steps toward that goal. On 17 to 18 May, some two dozen cognitive scientists, social psychologists, and engineers will discuss the roots of individual and group creativity and innovation in science. On 1 to 2 June, a second workshop will explore the organizational components—how cultural, political, demographic, economic, and scientific patterns affect the creation and application of knowledge. In July, an international group of experts will suggest ways to improve existing surveys that measure various indicators of a nation's technological prowess, from publications to public understanding of science.

If the funding materializes, Lightfoot foresees a collection of interdisciplinary research centers, focused either on a particular discipline or an important technology. “To date, the criteria most commonly used—citation analysis or other bibliometrics—are science-neutral and field-independent,” he says. “That strikes me as a mistake and a significant limitation. Chemistry and archaeology have different scientific cultures, and those differences affect innovation.”

Lightfoot is in the process of hiring someone to coordinate the initiative within SBE and across NSF. The White House is also forming an interagency task force to oversee the initiative.

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