There's a big change happening in UK science+engineering at the moment, and it goes by the name of Impact. What does it mean? When we do science we often do it just to find new things out, yet whether we intend it or not one of the great things about science is that it actually makes important changes to the world outside our research group. Impact is formally defined as being that effect that we have - on business and economy, on health, on public policy, on culture and the arts. There are billions of ways that impact spreads.
This has always been a very unpredictable thing and pretty hard to measure, so the government now has created a formal process for trying to account for the types of impact that we get out of research - and even further, to think hard about impact when deciding what research to fund. In a lot of cases the predicted impact will now account for up to 25% of the considerations in rating academic departments or allocating funding.
Sounds reasonable? Well many scientists are against it - and it's not because they don't like having to justify themselves (they already have to do that when they write grant applications etc), but because the real impact of science often happens in surprising ways, sometimes many years down the line. Take DNA fingerprinting for example. The scientists who came up with it were working with DNA, trying to measure various things, but they had no idea that the best thing they could do was make an unruly collection of DNA form patterns on a sheet of film - they discovered it by accident. And now it's an important part of many of the most serious court cases we have. Think of all the people who were convicted or freed based on DNA evidence - that's some serious impact there.
There are lots more examples of unpredictable impact - such as:
And the opposite is also true - history is littered with examples of discoveries/inventions that were widely expected to change the world, but didn't:
So with all this evidence, it's not surprising that scientists are worried about this new approach of trying to plan your impact - much of the curiosity-driven stuff that has real impact could well get sidelined in favour of things which might be a bit less imaginitive but which seem like they'll definitely make some public or business connection.
OK fine - seems like there's some misguided bureaucracy coming down from government, and we have to try and make sure it doesn't end up stifling what it's supposed to be helping. But there's a bigger question that maybe we can think about. As I've said, "impact" is very hard to pin down or predict, and we don't really know how predictable it could or should be. But in many grant applications and suchlike, scientists are now writing down their predictions about the impact they'll have. Are those predictions useful data? Could we use "impact plans" as a great big study about whether impact can be predictable?
We could for example wait for five years, then look back at the pile of impact plans and ask, how many of those predictions (the ones which got funded, at least) came true? What percentage? What proportion of the observable scientific+engineering impact made over the next five years will have been predicted, in writing, in advance?
It would still leave a million questions unanswered, especially about unidentifiable impact (subtle things which are hard to count), long-term impact, and really it would still be a very reductive way to think about how science affects our society. But I wonder... would that make all these "impact statements" worth their while?