A direct and quantifiable impact on science to come out of my PhD was the 50-odd times that I brewed coffee for the department morning tea. Scientists turned up and got coffee; I got thanked for helping make that happen.
Despite its impact, brewing coffee is not listed on my CV1. Instead, I have publications. Yet, compared to coffee, the direct impacts of these publications are hard to define.
When scientists speak honestly, they recognise that much of what they publish is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. But you’d never know that from reading their papers. That’s because we all play the same game when writing a scientific paper: We introduce it as if it has some critical link to one of the world’s pressing problems. In my line of research, I would be unsurprised if a paper started off with the following sentence:
Our understanding of turbulent heat transfer in the ocean is critical for climate change, but poorly understood.
Now, this isn’t wrong, but it’s way out of proportion. It’s a warped and inflated representation of what’s to come in the rest of the paper. Most likely, such a paper would go on to provide a small contribution that doesn’t come close to a complete understanding.
In other fields, warped views might manifest as a microbiologist introducing a paper as if it’s the missing link to the cure of a particular disease. Or an ecologist pitching a paper in terms of collapsing biodiversity. There’s often a cookie-cutter feel to these pitches.
Ultimately, what we have is a small number of overarching societal problems and thousands of scientific papers trying to elevate their importance by association to these problems—regardless of how tenuous the association is.
This reliance on a vague link to a big issue can feel like an admission of insecurity. Wouldn’t it be better if, when writing a scientific paper, we didn’t have to worry about selling its importance or its implications. Because much of the time we’re stretching the truth. Much of the time the honest thing to say about our science is, as neuroscientist Richard Gao writes,
“Well, I can’t really tell you what the implication is, and I don’t really care if there is one. But rest assured that when we figure this thing out from top to bottom, someone somewhere WILL come up with something useful to do with it.”
Some scientific fields can ignore this perceived need for impact. Astronomy, for example, thrives on an intrinsic quality. As science historian Jacob Hamblin puts it, “prestige alone sent expeditions to the Antarctic and outer space, and the scientists needed only conduct as much research as possible. By contrast, governments had to be sold on the oceans.”
As a physical oceanographer, I am (by Hamblin’s argument) working in an unprestigious field. This prompts me, like scientists in most fields, to sell the downstream implications of my research. Which can be tricky because you can’t eat temperatures and salinities.2
My reluctance to sell effectively means that I’m advocating science for the sake of science. And I agree with Uri Alon that “one of the fundamental aspects of science is that the interest of a problem is subjective and personal.” At the same time, I’m not suggesting that I should be able to go off and research—at the taxpayer’s expense—whatever trivial and esoteric phenomenon that interests me.
It might sound like I’m contradicting myself. So let’s be clear. I’m not saying that research shouldn’t have implications. But I am saying that they don’t have to be immediate or tangible.3
In fact, aiming for immediate or tangible implications can backfire. If you have a singular focus on answering a specific goal, then you’ll never brainstorm a wider set of ideas. To quote Richard Gao4 again:
“Let’s say our goal is to cure disease X, and methods A, B, and C are the most promising so far, why in the world would I try anything else?”
Or, as astrophysicist Brian Keating puts it: “Demanding high return on investment5 and fast turnaround may be stymieing revolutionary discoveries in the future.” To further his point, Keating quotes Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter: “In the modern-day context there’s a tendency to ask: ‘What is it that you are planning to research? When will you finish it? And what day will your discovery be made?'” And Perlmutter isn’t the only one in his class with this opinion. “A troubling trend is the nearly annual declaration by a Nobel laureate that their biggest discovery would not have been possible in today’s research environment.”
Of course, anyone—scientist or not—knows that you can’t put a future discovery on your calendar. You can’t necessarily even say what it will be. Often, the most worthwhile discoveries aren’t even those we aim for. Discovery is nonlinear. And “simple basic science designed to understand how the world works is by far the best way to make an impact and be relevant on the largest possible scale.”
Now, even if you agree with the above, you might still ask what’s wrong with including a couple paragraphs in a scientific paper to riff on its possible importance or its implications? In fact, you could even argue that doing so makes the paper more accessible to the general public, which is laudable… except only at first glance. Because there’s not actually any value in making scientific papers widely accessible. In fact, if we’re including tenuous and simplistic links to overarching societal issues simply in an attempt to engage the reader, then we are actively giving non-experts the wrong idea. We are giving them a warped and inflated view of science.
1It wouldn’t surprise me to see “brewing coffee” on an academic’s CV, i.e., a document in which it’s not uncommon to “blow up a banal event into something more significant.”
2The quote that you can’t eat temperatures and salinities deserves some clarification. It’s a quote from 1960 from marine biologist Gilbert Voss questioning how much physical oceanography—a field that disproportionately focuses on two quantities: temperature and salinity—could really benefit starving people. Much better to spend money directly on developing fisheries, Voss implies.
3The recognition that pure science can have implications that only arise generations later goes back centuries. Here’s Charles Babbage’s view as written in unmistakably 19th-century prose: “In the mathematical science, it happens that truths which are at one period the most abstract, and apparently the most remote from all useful application become in the next age the bases of profound physical inquiries, and in the succeeding one, perhaps, by proper simplification and reduction to tables, furnish their ready and daily aid to the artist and the sailor.”
4If you’ve got this far and haven’t already clicked through to Richard Gao’s post on a similar topic, do so now. It’s a much better argument than mine.
5As quoted in the book Range, New Hampshire senator (and engineering PhD) John Sununu has a concise argument against the desire for scientific studies to have high return on investment: “if you can identify an economic benefit [for a given research project], you shouldn’t be funding it. That’s what we have a venture capital community for.”