By focusing on outputs, rather than people, we misunderstand the real impact of research


Blog by Paul Nightingale and Rebecca Vine: “Increases in funding for research come with a growing expectation that researchers will do more to improve social welfare, economic prosperity and more broadly foster innovation. It is widely accepted that innovation is a key driver of long-term economic growth and that public funding for research complements private investment. What is more contested is how research delivers impact. Whether it comes from the kinds of linear processes of knowledge transfer from researcher to user, sought for and often narrated in REF impact case studies. Or, if the indirect effects of research such as expertise, networks, instrumentation, methods and trained students, are as important as the discoveries….

One reason research is so important, is that as the economy has changed and demand for experts has increased. As we noted in a Treasury report over 20 years ago, often the most valuable output of research is ‘talent, not technology’. The ‘post-graduate premium’ that having a Masters qualification adds to starting salaries is evidence of this. But why is expertise so valuable? Experts don’t just know more than novices, they understand things differently, drawing on more abstract, ‘deeper’ representations. Research on chess-grandmasters, for example, shows that they understand chess piece configurations by seeing patterns. They can see a Sicilian defence, while novices just see a selection of chess pieces. Their expertise enables them to configure chess positions more effectively and solve problems more rapidly. They draw different conclusions than novices, typically starting closer to more robust solutions, finding solutions faster, and exploring fewer dead-ends….

Research is extremely important because innovation requires more diverse and deeper stocks of knowledge. Academics with field expertise and highly developed research skills can play a valuable and important role co-producing research and creating impact. These observations are drawn from our ESRC-funded research collaboration with the UK government – known as Project X. Within a year Project X became the mechanism to coordinate the Cabinet Office’s areas of research interest (ARIs) for government major project delivery. This required a sophisticated governance structure and the careful coordination of a mixed portfolio of practice-focused and theoretical research…(More)”.

Public Provides NASA with New Innovations through Prize Competitions, Crowdsourcing, Citizen Science Opportunities


NASA Report: “Whether problem-solving during the pandemic, establishing a long-term presence at the Moon, or advancing technology to adapt to life in space, NASA has leveraged open innovation tools to inspire solutions to some of our most timely challenges – while using the creativity of everyone from garage tinkerers to citizen scientists and students of all ages.

Open Innovation: Boosting NASA Higher, Faster, and Farther highlights some of those breakthroughs, which accelerate space technology development and discovery while giving the public a gateway to work with NASA. Open innovation initiatives include problem-focused challenges and prize competitions, data hackathons, citizen science, and crowdsourcing projects that invite the public to lend their skills, ideas, and time to support NASA research and development programs.

NASA engaged the public with 56 public prize competitions and challenges and 14 citizen science and crowdsourcing activities over fiscal years 2019 and 2020. NASA awarded $2.2 million in prize money, and members of the public submitted over 11,000 solutions during that period.

“NASA’s accomplishments have hardly been NASA’s alone. Tens of thousands more individuals from academic institutions, private companies, and other space agencies also contribute to these solutions. Open innovation expands the NASA community and broadens the agency’s capacity for innovation and discovery even further,” said Amy Kaminski, Prizes, Challenges, and Crowdsourcing program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We harness the perspectives, expertise, and enthusiasm of ‘the crowd’ to gain diverse solutions, speed up projects, and reduce costs.”

This edition of the publication highlights:

  • How NASA used open innovation tools to accelerate the pace of problem-solving during the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling a sprint of creativity to create valuable solutions in support of this global crisis
  • How NASA invited everyone to embrace the Moon as a technological testing ground through public prize competitions and challenges, sparking development that could help prolong human stays on the Moon and lay the foundation for human exploration to Mars and beyond  
  • How citizen scientists gather, sort, and upload data, resulting in fruitful partnerships between the public and NASA scientists
  • How NASA’s student-focused challenges have changed lives and positively impacted underserved communities…(More)”.

The West already monopolized scientific publishing. Covid made it worse.


Samanth Subramanian at Quartz: “For nearly a decade, Jorge Contreras has been railing against the broken system of scientific publishing. Academic journals are dominated by the Western scientists, who not only fill their pages but also work for institutions that can afford the hefty subscription fees to these journals. “These issues have been brewing for decades,” said Contreras, a professor at the University of Utah’s College of Law who specializes in intellectual property in the sciences. “The covid crisis has certainly exacerbated things, though.”

The coronavirus pandemic triggered a torrent of academic papers. By August 2021, at least 210,000 new papers on covid-19 had been published, according to a Royal Society study. Of the 720,000-odd authors of these papers, nearly 270,000 were from the US, the UK, Italy or Spain.

These papers carry research forward, of course—but they also advance their authors’ careers, and earn them grants and patents. But many of these papers are often based on data gathered in the global south, by scientists who perhaps don’t have the resources to expand on their research and publish. Such scientists aren’t always credited in the papers their data give rise to; to make things worse, the papers appear in journals that are out of the financial reach of these scientists and their institutes.

These imbalances have, as Contreras said, been a part of the publishing landscape for years. (And it doesn’t occur just in the sciences; economists from the US or the UK, for instance, tend to study countries where English is the most common language.) But the pace and pressures of covid-19 have rendered these iniquities especially stark.

Scientists have paid to publish their covid-19 research—sometimes as much as $5,200 per article. Subscriber-only journals maintain their high fees, running into thousands of dollars a year; in 2020, the Dutch publishing house Elsevier, which puts out journals such as Cell and Gene, reported a profit of nearly $1 billion, at a margin higher than that of Apple or Amazon. And Western scientists are pressing to keep data out of GISAID, a genome database that compels users to acknowledge or collaborate with anyone who deposits the data…(More)”

Making Space for Everyone


Amy Paige Kaminski at Issues: “The story of how NASA came to see the public as instrumental in accomplishing its mission provides insights for R&D agencies trying to create societal value, relevance, and connection….Over the decades since, NASA’s approaches to connecting with citizens have evolved with the introduction of new information and communications technologies, social change, legal developments, scientific progress, and external trends in space activities and public engagement. The result has been an increasing and increasingly accessible set of opportunities that have enabled diverse segments of society to connect more closely with NASA’s work and, in turn, boost the agency’s techno-scientific and societal value….

Another significant change in public engagement practices has been providing more people with opportunities to do space-related R&D. Through the shuttle program, the agency enabled companies, universities, high schools, and an eclectic set of participants ranging from artists to garden seed companies to develop and fly payloads. The stated purpose was to advance knowledge of the effects of the space environment—a concept that was sometimes loosely defined. 

Today NASA similarly encourages a broad set of players to use the International Space Station (ISS) for R&D. While some of the shuttle and ISS programs have charged fees to payload owners, NASA has instead offered grants, primarily to the university community, for competitively selected research projects in space science. The agency also invites various groups to propose experiments and technology development projects through government-wide programs such as the Small Business Innovative Research program, which aims to foster innovation in small businesses, as well as the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (better known by its EPSCoR acronym), which seeks to enhance research infrastructure and competitiveness at the state level….(More)”.

Manufacturing Consensus


Essay by M. Anthony Mills: “…Yet, the achievement of consensus within science, however rare and special, rarely translates into consensus in social and political contexts. Take nuclear physics, a well-established field of natural science if ever there were one, in which there is a high degree of consensus. But agreement on the physics of nuclear fission is not sufficient for answering such complex social, political, and economic questions as whether nuclear energy is a safe and viable alternative energy source, whether and where to build nuclear power plants, or how to dispose of nuclear waste. Expertise in nuclear physics and literacy in its consensus views is obviously important for answering such questions, but inadequate. That’s because answering them also requires drawing on various other kinds of technical expertise — from statistics to risk assessment to engineering to environmental science — within which there may or may not be disciplinary consensus, not to mention grappling with practical challenges and deep value disagreements and conflicting interests.

It is in these contexts — where multiple kinds of scientific expertise are necessary but not sufficient for solving controversial political problems — that the dependence of non-experts on scientific expertise becomes fraught, as our debates over pandemic policies amply demonstrate. Here scientific experts may disagree about the meaning, implications, or limits of what they know. As a result, their authority to say what they know becomes precarious, and the public may challenge or even reject it. To make matters worse, we usually do not have the luxury of a scientific consensus in such controversial contexts anyway, because political decisions often have to be made long before a scientific consensus can be reached — or because the sciences involved are those in which a consensus is simply not available, and may never be.

To be sure, scientific experts can and do weigh in on controversial political decisions. For instance, scientific institutions, such as the National Academies of Sciences, will sometimes issue “consensus reports” or similar documents on topics of social and political significance, such as risk assessment, climate change, and pandemic policies. These usually draw on existing bodies of knowledge from widely varied disciplines and take considerable time and effort to produce. Such documents can be quite helpful and are frequently used to aid policy and regulatory decision-making, although they are not always available when needed for making a decision.

Yet the kind of consensus expressed in these documents is importantly distinct from the kind we have been discussing so far, even though they are both often labeled as such. The difference is between what philosopher of science Stephen P. Turner calls a “scientific consensus” and a “consensus of scientists.” A scientific consensus, as described earlier, is a relatively stable paradigm that structures and organizes scientific research. By contrast, a consensus of scientists is an organized, professional opinion, created in response to an explicit political or social need, often an official government request…(More)”.

Slowed canonical progress in large fields of science


Paper by Johan S. G. Chu and James A. Evans: “The size of scientific fields may impede the rise of new ideas. Examining 1.8 billion citations among 90 million papers across 241 subjects, we find a deluge of papers does not lead to turnover of central ideas in a field, but rather to ossification of canon. Scholars in fields where many papers are published annually face difficulty getting published, read, and cited unless their work references already widely cited articles. New papers containing potentially important contributions cannot garner field-wide attention through gradual processes of diffusion. These findings suggest fundamental progress may be stymied if quantitative growth of scientific endeavors—in number of scientists, institutes, and papers—is not balanced by structures fostering disruptive scholarship and focusing attention on novel ideas…(More)”.

Expertise, ‘Publics’ and the Construction of Government Policy


Introduction to Special Issue of Discover Society about the role of expertise and professional knowledge in democracy by John Holmwood: “In the UK, the vexed nature of the issue was, perhaps, best illustrated by (then Justice Secretary) Michael Gove’s comment during the Brexit campaign that he thought, “the people of this country have had enough of experts.” The comment is oft cited, and derided, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, where the public has, or so it is argued, found a new respect for a science that can guide public policy and deliver solutions.

Yet, Michael Gove’s point was more nuanced than is usually credited. It wasn’t scientific advice that he claimed people were fed up with, but “experts with organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” In other words, his complaint was about specific organised advocacy groups and their intervention in public debate and reporting in the media.

… the Government has consistently mobilised the claimed expert opinion of organisations in justification of their policies

Michael Gove’s extended comment was disingenuous. After all, the Brexit campaign, no less than the Remain campaign, drew upon arguments from think tanks and lobby groups. Moreover, since the referendum, the Government has consistently mobilised the claimed expert opinion of organisations in justification of their policies. Indeed, as Layla Aitlhadj and John Holmwood in this special issue argue, they have deliberately ‘managed’ civil society groups and supposedly independent reviews, such as that currently underway into the Prevent counter extremism policy.

In fact, there is nothing straightforward about the relationship between expertise and democracy as Stephen Turner (2003) has observed. The development of liberal democracy involves the rise of professional and expert knowledge which underpins the everyday governance of public institutions. At the same time, wider publics are asked to trust that knowledge even where it impinges directly upon their preferences; they are not in a position to evaluate it, except through the mediation of other experts. Elected politicians and governments, in turn, are dependent on expert knowledge to guide their policy choices, which are duly constrained by what is possible on the basis of technical judgements….(More)”

Seek diversity to solve complexity


Katrin Prager at Nature: “As a social scientist, I know that one person cannot solve a societal problem on their own — and even a group of very intelligent people will struggle to do it. But we can boost our chances of success if we ensure not only that the team members are intelligent, but also that the team itself is highly diverse.

By ‘diverse’ I mean demographic diversity encompassing things such as race, gender identity, class, ethnicity, career stage and age, and cognitive diversity, including differences in thoughts, insights, disciplines, perspectives, frames of reference and thinking styles. And the team needs to be purposely diverse instead of arbitrarily diverse.

In my work I focus on complex world problems, such as how to sustainably manage our natural resources and landscapes, and I’ve found that it helps to deliberately assemble diverse teams. This effort requires me to be aware of the different ways in which people can be diverse, and to reflect on my own preferences and biases. Sometimes the teams might not be as diverse as I’d like. But I’ve found that making the effort not only to encourage diversity, but also to foster better understanding between team members reaps dividends….(more)”

Be Skeptical of Thought Leaders


Book Review by Evan Selinger: “Corporations regularly advertise their commitment to “ethics.” They often profess to behave better than the law requires and sometimes may even claim to make the world a better place. Google, for example, trumpets its commitment to “responsibly” developing artificial intelligence and swears it follows lofty AI principles that include being “socially beneficial” and “accountable to people,” and that “avoid creating or reinforcing unfair bias.”

Google’s recent treatment of Timnit Gebru, the former co-leader of its ethical AI team, tells another story. After Gebru went through an antagonistic internal review process for a co-authored paper that explores social and environmental risks and expressed concern over justice issues within Google, the company didn’t congratulate her for a job well done. Instead, she and vocally supportive colleague Margaret Mitchell (the other co-leader) were “forced out.” Google’s behavior “perhaps irreversibly damaged” the company’s reputation. It was hard not to conclude that corporate values misalign with the public good.

Even as tech companies continue to display hypocrisy, there might still be good reasons to have high hopes for their behavior in the future. Suppose corporations can do better than ethics washingvirtue signaling, and making incremental improvements that don’t challenge aggressive plans for financial growth. If so, society desperately needs to know what it takes to bring about dramatic change. On paper, Susan Liautaud is the right person to turn to for help. She has impressive academic credentials (a PhD in Social Policy from the London School of Economics and a JD from Columbia University Law School), founded and manages an ethics consulting firm with an international reach, and teaches ethics courses at Stanford University.

In The Power of Ethics: How to Make Good Choices in a Complicated World, Liautaud pursues a laudable goal: democratize the essential practical steps for making responsible decisions in a confusing and complex world. While the book is pleasantly accessible, it has glaring faults. With so much high-quality critical journalistic coverage of technologies and tech companies, we should expect more from long-form analysis.

Although ethics is more widely associated with dour finger-waving than aspirational world-building, Liautaud mostly crafts an upbeat and hopeful narrative, albeit not so cheerful that she denies the obvious pervasiveness of shortsighted mistakes and blatant misconduct. The problem is that she insists ethical values and technological development pair nicely. Big Tech might be exerting increasing control over our lives, exhibiting an oversized influence on public welfare through incursions into politics, education, social communication, space travel, national defense, policing, and currency — but this doesn’t in the least quell her enthusiasm, which remains elevated enough throughout her book to affirm the power of the people. Hyperbolically, she declares, “No matter where you stand […] you have the opportunity to prevent the monopolization of ethics by rogue actors, corporate giants, and even well-intentioned scientists and innovators.”…(More)“.

Help us identify how data can make food healthier for us and the environment


The GovLab: “To make food production, distribution, and consumption healthier for people, animals, and the environment, we need to redesign today’s food systems. Data and data science can help us develop sustainable solutions — but only if we manage to define those questions that matter.

Globally, we are witnessing the damage that unsustainable farming practices have caused on the environment. At the same time, climate change is making our food systems more fragile, while the global population continues to rapidly increase. To feed everyone, we need to become more sustainable in our approach to producing, consuming, and disposing of food.

Policymakers and stakeholders need to work together to reimagine food systems and collectively make them more resilient, healthy, and inclusive.

Data will be integral to understanding where failures and vulnerabilities exist and what methods are needed to rectify them. Yet, the insights generated from data are only as good as the questions they seek to answer. To become smarter about current and future food systems using data, we need to ask the right questions first.

That’s where The 100 Questions Initiative comes in. It starts from the premise that to leverage data in a responsible and effective manner, data initiatives should be driven by demand, not supply. Working with a global cohort of experts, The 100 Questions seeks to map the most pressing and potentially impactful questions that data and data science can answer.

Today the Barilla Foundation, the Center for European Policy Studies, and The Governance Lab at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, are announcing the launch of the Food Systems Sustainability domain of The 100 Questions. We seek to identify the 10 most important questions that need to be answered to make food systems more sustainable…(More)”.