What is the purpose of scientific research?
During the coming year I will be exploring different career and project opportunities that could contribute to improving the scientific research system. As a first step, I here make an attempt to formulate more clearly what “better science” could look like. On an abstract level, there seem to be two competing worldviews around. One is a consequentialist, welfarist, aim and the other is focused on the intrinsic value of knowledge.
The first view can be phrased as follows:
“Better science is science that more effectively improves the lives of sentient beings.”
This is a view of science in the service of society. It goes especially well with applied research, and also seems to correspond with many research funding organizations’ approaches. The justification for dedicating substantial resources (approx 2 % of global GDP) to scientific research comes from the expected social benefits in terms of health, economy, quality of life, and so on.
The second framing is more focused on the intrinsic value of knowledge:
“Better science is science that more effectively improves our understanding of the universe.”
This might appear closer to the approach of fundamental research, where the practical usefulness of eventual results is sometimes unclear. This second framing, with science in service of knowledge rather than of society, also rhymes better with ideals of scientific freedom and independence from political influence.
Steering science too much towards societal gains might be counterproductive as it is difficult to predict the usefulness of new knowledge before it has been obtained. Meanwhile, completely ignoring societal values could also have absurd consequences as there would be no way to distinguish between meaningless, valuable, or even harmful knowledge.
I’m leaning towards some sort of pragmatic compromise here where the ultimate aim is the production of value in the welfarist sense, while “understanding the universe” remains an important instrumental goal. Even if we cannot predict the usefulness of new knowledge before we obtain it, it seems reasonable that advancing our understanding of the universe has a lot of potential to improve lives. How much we should prioritize fundamental research where there is not yet any apparent societal usefulness of the results is then an issue of balancing exploration and exploitation.
Given that we expect scientific research to improve the lives of sentient beings (in a long time perspective, not excluding exploratory work in new fields), in which ways could scientific research be improved? We could use strategies focusing on effectiveness, improving the direction that science develops in, and we could also work on improving the efficiency – or the speed – of development.
Particularly in applied research, it would be relevant to try to improve how effective research is at improving welfare. Improving effectiveness could be done by improving prioritization between different research areas (e.g. “What is the best resource allocation between health research and clean energy research?”) as well as prioritizing between strategies in a specific subarea (e.g. “What is the best resource allocation between research into perovskite solar cells versus plasmonic solar cells?”). In practice, this is often a concern of research funders aiming to direct funds to the projects that show most promise.
Another way of improving the effectiveness of specific projects would be by designing the research questions in a way that makes results more useful. This could for example be approached by increasing and improving collaboration between researchers and the intended end users. Close contact with end users both ensures that the research question is framed in a relevant way, and facilitates the communication and exploitation of results when the research has concluded.
Advances in scientific research could, however, also be a threat to welfare. Discussions regarding how gain of function research could cause pandemics or the risks associated with the development of advanced artificial intelligence illustrate this, and another aspect of improving the effectiveness of research could therefore be to make scientific progress safer. One strategy would be to simply steer clear of any field that seems too risky, but this is complicated by the fact that the same piece of knowledge or information can often be applied both in useful and in dangerous ways. There is an interesting historical case that illustrates this complexity when, in the 70’s, a moratorium was placed on certain kinds of recombinant DNA research that appeared like high risk activities at the time. A more contemporary example would be the work of the Future of Humanity Institute on the safe development of artificial intelligence.
Most of the metascience movement appears to me to be focused on improving the efficiency of research. If improving effectiveness is about making sure research is exploring knowledge in the right direction, improving efficiency is about increasing the speed and decreasing the cost of exploration.
Improving the efficiency of scientific research could be done by, for example, improving methods and reporting to ensure better reproducibility of results, by improving peer review to increase quality standards for published results or by cultural improvements that increase productivity in a meaningful way. Initiatives of these kinds are often framed as improving the quality of research rather than the efficiency, but I think it’s reasonable to think that the main long-term effect of more high quality research would be more efficient progress. Improved quality could also contribute to increased effectiveness, but I think that effect would be less significant than the contribution to higher efficiency.
Intuitively, increasing efficiency can seem uncontroversial, but there is criticism that some of these initiatives may be counterproductive. The long-term impact on welfare caused by more efficient research is also difficult to forecast. It is easy to come up with examples where speedy progress could bring significant gains: diseases could be cured or prevented, climate change could be slowed, societies could be adapted to become more resilient. On the other hand, speedier progress could entail risks that increase existential risks and threaten welfare. Particularly in fundamental research where the implications of new results are unpredictable, it is difficult to know if and how much increased efficiency would contribute to welfare.
I’ve heard arguments that even if we wouldn’t want to speed up scientific progress, higher efficiency would decrease waste and free up resources that could be used for something other than research (that would increase welfare). As much as I hate seeing resources go to waste, I think such a scenario seems like an unlikely development in the general case. I don’t see how resources would be allocated (presumably on a political level) away from research as a natural consequence of improvements to research efficiency. Perhaps I could imagine this happening as a result of a specifically targeted effort where gains in efficiency were somehow linked to the reallocation of resources, but I’m unsure what that would look like.
Differential development of different fields
Scientific research is a very diverse activity and different fields of research vary from each other both in terms of potential benefits, potential risks and of which bottlenecks limit progress. New practices are often picked up in a patchy way; for example, the practice of publishing preprints was introduced in physics in 1991, but it is only recently that it has become more common in chemistry research.
This tendency of differential development of different fields suggests that an attempt to improve the scientific research system could benefit from targeting a specific area of research, rather than scientific research in general. This seems especially true for initiatives targeting efficiency or risk mitigation. For initiatives to improve effectiveness by influencing funding prioritizations a more “global” approach could perhaps be feasible in some cases, though it might still be practically more difficult than a targeted effort.