Recently, I explained why scientific research costs so very much (see article in the Money&Grants category on “Why is Science so Very Expensive?”) With that understanding we now can wonder whether spending this very large total amount of money to support research studies is worthwhile (i.e., do the results justify the costs)? This is a very natural question for all taxpayers who are forced to support research studies; but, this question is not so easy to answer because there are no objective measures upon which to base the evaluations. The public views scientific research almost totally only on the basis of practical considerations (e.g., will this study cure a disease, will that research produce a much cheaper product, will these investigations help agricultural productivity, etc.). To be fair both to taxpayers and the scientists conducting grant-supported research, we will first look at how to evaluate individual research projects, and then step back to consider the value received from all the total research activity.
Are Individual Research Projects Worth their Costs?
Basic research seeks new knowledge for its own sake. Most people judge the importance of basic research studies as being a total waste of money (e.g., “What difference does it make to me or to society if we know more facts about the nest-building behavior of another tropical fruit-eating bird?”). This type of judgment by non-scientists is based on ignorance; moreover, they do not recognize that many esoteric findings from basic research much later turn out to have a very wide importance and significant practical uses.These thoughts lead me to believe that it is best to look at the critical opinions of experts rather than to use our everyday opinions based on emotions and ignorance. Only experts have the full background and technical experience needed to form valid judgments about the worthiness of research projects in basic science. My conclusion here is that the costs and benefits of basic science research can only be validly evaluated by experts.
For applied research, experimental and engineering studies are used to design a new offering or improve an existing commercial product. Applied research and development efforts all are funded by a commercial business only up to the point that the total expenses must be less than the expected profits coming from future sales of the new or improved product. Judgments by non-scientists about the worthiness of applied research are based only on personal preferences, and therefore commonly differ from one person to another. Again, opinions from experts are better.
How are Official Judgments Made about Worthiness in Proposed Research Studies?
Given that it is difficult for non-scientists to objectively evaluate the worthiness of most basic research studies in modern science, we must look briefly at how the official decisions about funding are made by granting agencies. They are supposed to carefully consider whether the money requested is appropriate to accomplish the stated aims in each project, and how the results will have value for science and society. Both quality and quantity are evaluated for the different aspects of all reviews (e.g., design of experiments, significance of answering the research questions, amount of time and money required, availability of needed laboratory facilities, training of the principal investigator, etc.). With applications for renewal of research support, reviewers then must look both forward (i.e., what will be done?) and backward (i.e., what has been accomplished during the previous period of support?). The expert reviewers also make both official and unofficial examinations about whether the selected research subject needs further study, and if significance of the expected results will justify the budget being requested.
The evaluation mechanism used by granting agencies avoids the ignorance problem by using experts to make these evaluations. Critical judgments of grant applications by expert reviewers (i.e., other scientists) constitute peer review. Expert reviewers often have approved research studies that non-scientists in the public regard as being a waste of money; as explained earlier, this lack of agreement largely is due to the very large difference in knowledge and technical experience. The validity of decisions by the official referees is enlarged by the fact that research grant applications are evaluated and judged by several experts, thereby usually avoiding any one opinion from becoming a mistake. Projects judged to have little conceivable significance for science, poor design, inadequate controls, mundane ideas, technical problems, etc., all usually are eliminated from funding by reviewers for the research grant agencies. The official evaluation of research grant proposals is a filtering mechanism, and this includes evaluation of the costs and benefits.
In principle, all the expert evaluations of applications by scientists for research grants should lead to funding of only those research projects having importance for science and society. Although this usually does happen, due to the very large number of research grant applications and the even larger number of reviewers, some small number of mistakes is made both for what is funded and what is not funded.
The Cost/Benefits Question for the Total Scientific Research
How can we best make a valid judgment about whether spending very large amounts of money on all scientific research is worthwhile? Looking at the evaluations for many thousands of individual research projects and then averaging does not give a very satisfying answer. Accordingly, we must ask here whether a different approach needs to be taken to obtain a more meaningful conclusion? By looking at the totality of all funded research projects, then there is a much more solid basis upon which to make an evaluation of costs versus benefits. I will explain this below, using the well-known examples of transistors and carbon nanotubes.
The invention and development of the transistor was initially only a physical curiosity (see the fascinating personal recollections by one of the leading research participants ). Its discovery exemplifies basic research in action, because its ultimate usefulness was not foreseen. Non-scientists all would have concluded that spending money for its discovery was pointless. After much further research and many engineering developments, electronics and computers using transistors now are found everywhere in the modern world. Once its practical importance was documented, the initial negative judgments rapidly changed to become strongly positive.
Carbon nanotubes were observed by Iijima in 1990-1991 while conducting basic research studies on a different type of carbon specimen with his electron microscope [2,3]. This unexpected observation of carbon nanotubes was a chance event, and is a wonderful example of serendipity in basic research. Iijima was not trying to study carbon nanotubes, because nobody was aware that they existed! Today, after further research investigations both in academia and industry, carbon nanotubes are found in several different important commercial products, and hundreds of scientists and engineers now are working on new uses for these very small materials within innovative products designed for medicine, energy storage, and high technology.
Early judgments about the worthiness of studying transistors and carbon nanotubes were negative and wrong. The money produced from all the present widespread usage of transistors is absolutely gigantic, and probably is, or soon will be, matched by the value of new products and many developing uses for carbon nanotubes. Thereby, the cost/benefits ratio for both are small, and all the money spent for their research studies must be judged to be very, very worthwhile. Moreover, the dollars coming from these 2 research discoveries alone have more than paid for all the numerous other scientific investigations that have had a much less notable outcome. Therefore, I believe that public funding of all worthy research studies is very worthwhile. My positive conclusion about the huge pile of money spent on research is that this is good, because by enabling all the very numerous ordinary research investigations that result in less spectacular or even mundane results, the chances that some really great unanticipated breakthroughs will be produced are notably increased.
Money most certainly is not the only measure for significance of scientific research! Investigations producing a breakthrough in research or a dramatic change in knowledge can have enormous importance for the progress of science. One good example of this is the recent arrival of the new concept of nanoscience; this new branch of physical science deals with materials just slightly bigger than individual atoms and molecules. Nanoscience now has extended into specialized areas of research, such as nanochemistry, nano-engineering, nanomedicine, nanotechnology, and, others [e.g., 4]. Nanoscience really represents a new way of thinking for scientists in these areas.
History is the ultimate judge for the worthiness of funding research studies! From the considerations described above, I draw 3 conclusions.
1. Basic research findings can take many years to develop into spectacular commercial products that are widely utilized. The ultimate success and worthiness of specific grant-supported basic research is almost impossible to predict.
2. For research projects in basic science, worthiness must be judged one at a time, and independently from practical usage. Significance of results from this or that research project only can be judged validly by other expert scientists.
3. The value of spending so much money to support scientific research is best measured by considering the totality of research results acquired by all funded studies. When viewed in this light, the funding of numerous projects that turn out to be only ordinary is seen to be good because this increases the chances that some unanticipated spectacular findings are acquired and thereby greatly benefit both science and society.
 Mullis, K.B., 2012. Conversation with John Bardeen. Available on the internet at:
 Iijima, S., & The Vega Science Trust, 1997. Nanotubes: The materials of the 21st century. Available on the internet at: http://vega.org.uk/video/programme/71 .
 Iijima, S., 2011. The discovery of carbon nanotubes. Available on the internet at: http://nanocarb.meijo-u.ac.jp/jst/english/Iijima/sumioE.html .
 XII International Conference on Nanostructured Materials, Moscow, Russia, 2014. NANO 2014. Available on the internet at: http://www.nano2014.org/ .
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