The latest chapter in the completely ineffectual resistance of British researchers to including broader impact criteria in the national research assessment really demonstrates how badly opponents have bungled this issue. ScienceInsider pointed me to this poll conducted by the University and College Union (UCU). Of the 589 professors surveyed, 35 percent indicated they would consider leaving the country if the impact assessments are added to the next research assessment exercise. 69 percent of those surveyed opposed the impact assessments. The UCU has also released a summary of the results.
Opposition to this consideration of the impact of research – what could be considered a desire to be accountable to the public for the money they provide for that research – relies on an oversimplified conception of scientific research and a narrow definition of what impact research has. Their arguments have been sloppy, assuming that impact assessments (which would be just one quarter of the total research assessment) would kill curiosity driven research. This lousy excuse for a policy report tries to claim that impact considerations would have killed scientific advances, but two mildly persuasive arguments from counterexample will persuade only those who already oppose the policy. UCU claims to have submitted a response to the request for comments on the policy, but I’m having trouble finding it on their website (unless its the lousy document I linked to above). I would love to see them propose an alternative set of impact criteria if they have such a problem with the proposal, but that strategy seems to have avoided the loudest voices on this issue.
What, exactly, is being proposed? Not what the opposition claims will be imposed.
Dr. Atul Gawande spoke earlier today at the PCAST meeting, focused on what research can be done to help improve health care and health care delivery. Dr. Gawande holds faculty positions in Harvard’s Medical and Public Health Schools and writes for The New Yorker on health care issues. During the lunch break I reviewed one of the articles he wrote in The New Yorker that was referenced during the question and answer session. While I appreciate his analysis of the health care bill, what really caught my interest was the parallel Dr. Gawande constructed between the current health care system and the nation’s agricultural system of the early twentieth century.
At the risk of oversummarizing a well-told story, the agricultural extension service – an incredibly successful program of communicating new scientifically tested farm techniques and technology to other farmers – started as a pilot program. The implication is that the pilot projects currently under some criticism in the health care legislation may be able to do the same thing for health care that the extension service did for agriculture – spread knowledge on what practices can save money, improve productivity, and increase desired outcomes. This simple analogy can be criticized, but Gawande places the discussion in an important context – both agriculture and health care are large systems with hundreds (if not thousands) of local entities that could help each other. Trying to provide timely information to the health care system, allowing the shaping of a feedback loop of information between researchers, clinicians, and health care entities – could go a long way to wrestling the cost curve, much like it did for agriculture. The history, and the systemic thinking, are well worth reading, digesting, and taking to heart.
Just because knowledge transfer (papers, conferences, research networks, etc.) between researchers and practitioners works well in many fields does not mean the same is true for all fields. It wasn’t true for agriculture (and even with the extension agents, as Gawande describes late in the piece, it’s still a challenge), it isn’t true for health care, and it certainly isn’t true for science and technology policy. The parallel Dr. Gawande constructed for agriculture and health care may not hold as well when extended to science and technology (cost curves certainly don’t hold), but the lack of incentives for private and public sector actors to move in improving the flow of knowledge certainly does.