Public Release: 

Basic research must orient itself toward societal goals

Leading science policy analysts urge greater emphasis on community participation

European Science Foundation

Citing numerous examples historical and contemporary, leading Science Policy Analysts Sheila Jasanhoff (Kennedy School of Government, Harvard) and Suzan Cozzens (Georgia Institute of Technology) have urged a fundamental shift in the way scientific research is carried out.

Speaking at the Science Impact conference, Vienna May 10-11th, Jasanhoff stated that "In order to create the linkages between basic science and the world of applications - the area I'm calling the 'Frontier of Dreams', we need networks that are incredibly heterogeneous - not only because they involve science and technology - but they also bringing in things like the law and other institutions."

"You can be pursuing fundamental knowledge, learning fundamental things about nature, but at the same time generally orienting your research towards societal goals. I do not see it as being incompatible," added Cozzens, who lectured on "Maximizing Social Impact through Science and Technology: Best Practices".

Jasanhoff sought to depict the often unclear, ill-defined pathways from basic to applied science, through a series of examples ranging from the relatively poor-uptake of GM Food crops of the 1990s to the current overwhelmingly negative public perception surrounding the human genome project and the so-called 'genetic revolution'.

"Biotechnology was framed in the U.S. from the beginning as a collection of new products produced through a means of development that did not by itself require scrutiny," she said. "As a result, in America we never adopted legislation for biotechnology, instead we attempted to regulate the products that came out of the biotech revolution.

Her argument is that failure at the market level is often the "result of a narrow framing process and in sufficiently inclusive a democratic process".

Sustainability of Economic Growth

"The challenge here is that economic growth is a very good thing, of course, but it doesn't actually automatically produce the kind of society that we want to live in. It doesn't produce all of those characteristics," stated Cozzens, whose research has delved into on-the-ground impacts of frontier research over the past 150 years.

Her studies showed, for example, that in the U.S. vast disparities have existed when it comes to dissemination of benefits between rich and poor, among ethnic groups, and between men and women. The issues have been addressed over time, but Cozzens feels interventions at an earlier stage could substantially raise the quality of life.

"Starting with the political rise of women in the U.S. through participation in the political process - as females members of congress and senate were elected they looked at huge NIH [National Institute of Health] budget and said - what's in this budget for us" And discovered there were oddities there - a neglect of women's issues including such things as breast cancer research being done on men."

Cozzens drew on further contemporary examples of such disparity on a worldwide scale, such as the high prices of HIV drugs which made them inaccessible for vast swathes of the developing world, which was at the time "considered a scandal by people within the medical community itself and within civil society".

One solution, she said, lay in creating a system of advance purchase commitments whereby a donor coalition of countries would come together and buy a drug before it even came to market, thus ensuring a market for the drug company at a reasonable price.

Such "public sector stimulation of private sector activity", as Cozzens puts it, is the way to move forward.

"In order to create a sustainable society public leadership and public funding has a very important role to play maintaining traditional mechanisms of orienting public research to social goals...public agencies also need to think more about working with industry to produce the kinds of societies that we want to live in.

"What's important here is that you do the work in a way that actually shifts power from the current centre out. If you don't change the power relationship, you haven't actually made it sustainable."


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