Who Benefits From Science?

A common belief among policy-makers, scientists, and businesspeople is that more science and technology (S&T) funding leads to more S&T development, which in turn leads to a better life. This expectation is espoused as fact and rarely questioned. However, enduring and growing inequality in the United States casts doubt on the assumptions of science’s endless frontier to “lift all boats.” In “Public Value of Science” (Issues, Summer 2020), Barry Bozeman shows how the promise that more S&T leads to a better life is not an unassailable fact. Indeed, in some circumstances, S&T progress makes life harder for people, especially those already marginalized by class, gender, race, occupation, and location.

Bozeman discusses many failures of science policy. Here we will focus on two particularly insightful areas: his critique of creative destruction and his five-step program for change.

When scientists and policy-makers invoke the creative destruction of innovation, they quickly highlight the creative and exciting aspects but are slow to address the destructive elements. When they do discuss the destruction, they often invoke utilitarian arguments that the benefits of innovation outweigh the costs, and therefore the innovation system should push forward.

Science is not an infinite fortuitous feedback loop, but rather a potentially regressive force on society.

Bozeman puts the brakes on those assumptions. Science is not an infinite fortuitous feedback loop, but rather a potentially regressive force on society. Poor and marginalized communities are systematically hurt by, or at least excluded from, scientific innovation that replaces sources of income, makes access to scientific benefits increasingly rare, or both. On the other hand, the politically connected, educated, and wealthy are most privy to the benefits of creative destruction.

After laying out the inadequacies of the endless frontier myth, Bozeman offers his five suggestions to change the system. All the steps in his program will make the innovation system more attuned to the needs of the public, but particularly intriguing is his third step to “create a new institute for satisfying curiosity.” As Bozeman states, a danger of emphasizing S&T’s value is that science without a clear economic and social impact could be regarded as unimportant. Some scientific endeavors, such as astronomy, might not have an economic value, but satisfying curiosity is important and needs to be preserved.

Bozeman suggests starting a new agency devoted to scientific curiosity. This agency would fund research that has no discernable benefit other than increasing knowledge and culture. This type of funding is akin to funding the arts. Few people try to equate the value of museums and theaters to developing new cancer medicine. Likewise, science policy should not measure the importance of “basic” research based on its economic value.

It is important for policy-makers, scientists, and technologists to read Bozeman’s article so they can understand the regressive forces of science policy practices. If they implement his five-step plan, then the benefits of creative destruction will reach a broader audience.

Assistant Professor, Department of Technology and Society

Stony Brook University

PhD Candidate, Sociology

Stony Brook University

Focusing on policy debates and social economic inequalities in the United States, Barry Bozeman suggests the need of a new policy rationale for science policy based on its public value instead of market failure remedy. Asking the question for whom science policy is creating value, his main point is that science policy exacerbates social economic inequality. For that reason, it is important that science policy focus on public investments that bring forward science-based innovation that leads to more balanced benefits for all US residents.

Bozeman has developed his arguments across a great part of his work, and they have had wide echo in the research community devoted to these matters. The debate in Europe goes along similar lines, but it has some different tones. Two crucial conceptual developments have been relevant in Europe.

First, the scholarly literature on “responsible research and innovation” suggests ways of advancing science’s own self-reflection about not only how science is done, but also about what science is done and for whom it is done. In a parallel development, European researchers have also been developing the conceptual framework of “transformative innovation policy,” which advocates a new generation of policy rationale for innovation policy focused on addressing the “grand challenges” that remain unsolved. These grand challenges are identified in the sustainable development goals of the United Nation’s Agenda 2030.

The European discussions on responsible research and innovation and on transformative innovation share the understanding that science, research, technology, and innovation policies are not just for the sake of improving the competitive position of private firms or for advancing economic growth at any cost. Instead, public investments in science and innovation are primarily a matter of advancing a broader well-being in society, which includes, but is not limited to, improving socioeconomic development. It is nice to see that scholars in the United States and Europe are on the same page on this crucial matter.

Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

Barry Bozeman makes a welcome contribution to a persistent policy debate. He argues, citing a 1992 newspaper article by the late US Representative George E. Brown Jr., that “society needs to negotiate a new contract with the scientific community.” Bozeman makes a powerful argument, but we should be aware that the path it proposes will be covered by disagreements and debates.

A taste of these can be found in the confrontational title of Brown’s article: “It’s Down to the Last Blank Check: We’ve paid for 45 years of discovery; let’s start requiring its application to the critical problems in the civilian sector.” Brown sounded slightly irked, and were he to witness the current situation, we can assume that today he would change little in his tone. Negotiating a new social contract has proved to be a sticky problem, which as Bozeman’s proposed “five-step program” suggests, would lead to a profound change in the governance of science. This change is fraught with obstacles.

First, it calls for a change of policy focus toward the contribution of science to the generation of public value and away from economic growth and its distribution. But this shift entails a change in the values themselves, as stressed by environmentalists such as Joanna Macy, who argues that “We will have to want different things, seek different pleasures and pursue different goals from those that have been driving us.”

When defining “public value,” Bozeman emphasizes their consensual nature. Yet within a process of change, such consensus may prove elusive. Focusing science policy on public values will require procedures to manage differences and conflicts. Political debate is then placed at the root of science policy.

Focusing science policy on public values will require procedures to manage differences and conflicts.

Second, the response of many scientists may not be supportive. Marie Curie’s statement nearly a hundred years ago, that science was to be pursued for “its own beauty” and that “there is always a chance” that its results will benefit humanity, will still find many advocates. The beauty of science implies that scientific knowledge is a value in itself.

But even setting aside potential differences on what contributes to public value, Bozeman recognizes a “clash” between “research that at least conceivably serves public values” and research “that serves other purposes,” and he proposes that “basic research motivated only by abstract scientific curiosity be insulated from public-value science.” This attempt at compromise opens up several problems: What proportion of public funding should be allocated to this kind of basic research? How will it be connected with the world of application should the “chance” of wider benefits emerge? How will the system manage the relationship between both spheres of scientific activity and address, for instance, competing recognition claims?

As Bozeman recognized, the “move toward a more public value-focused science…will not be easy.” Moving the public responsibilities of science to the center stage of science policy is a much-needed response to the problems we face today. It requires, however, a major systemic change that will expose contrasting values and interests within the scientific and science policy communities.

INGENIO (CSIC-UPV) and the Oslo Institute for Research on the Impact of Science

Barry Bozeman raises one of the most fundamental questions in science policy: who benefits from science? His answer is clear: right now the benefits tend to go to the rich, while the ­negative impacts, such as unemployment or pollution, differentially affect the poor. Bozeman thus concludes that science and technology can be a regressive factor in society as they reinforce current social inequalities.

The argument is sharp, sound, and convincing. Although Bozeman focused on the United States, it is a relevant discussion across the globe, even in welfare democracies such as the Netherlands or Sweden. Many innovations related to economic growth reduce job opportunities for the lower and middle classes. Many innovations related to consumption are mainly enjoyed by those who can afford them—even in health. And the harm caused by innovation affects more directly disenfranchised communities.

Under the special status that science enjoyed in the twentieth century as a central factor in “modernity,” science policy seldom took notice that innovation could do harm. If there were negative outcomes to knowledge production, they were assumed to be the result of inadequate downstream policies for environmental, health, or welfare issues, not a problem of science policy. Irrespective of research agendas, it was seldom questioned that science would or could result in benefits for all.

Many innovations related to economic growth reduce job opportunities for the lower and middle classes.

The importance of Bozeman’s article lies in highlighting that many research trajectories (or directions) supported by public policies are surprisingly well-aligned with dominant economic and political interests, rather than being concerned with wider social benefits. This is obvious in publicly funded health research, where the focus is often on expensive treatments and chronic diseases of wealthy nations—a position that is astonishingly similar to private R&D. In other sectors as well, incumbent groups can be seen shaping research agendas according to their interests rather than the public good. See, for example, the persistently large investment in nuclear fusion research, which is slated to receive five billion euros, or 6% of all European Commission research spending for 2021-27, despite the current success of greener renewable technologies. Thus, science tends to benefit more the wealthy than the poor because research agendas are shaped in a variety of both explicit and invisible ways by incumbent groups without open debate on public values and wider societal benefits.

The picture that Bozeman draws is concordant with diagnoses presented in recent years by innovation studies scholars such as Andy Stirling, Johan Schot, and Mariana Mazzucato. However, the proposals for improvement offered by the different authors have interesting differences in emphasis.

Mazzucato focuses on state-led missions, rather than top-down ones, that would spearhead innovation in directions consistent with public values. Schot, building on sustainability transition theory, proposes that transformative change in innovation systems need the coordination (orchestrated by state policy) of the various parties involved. In this view, research can indeed contribute to change innovation pathways, but it will succeed only when synchronized with ongoing transformations downstream. Stirling focuses on how allegedly progressive transformations can become captured by particular interests even when led by public policy, and he emphasizes the need for supporting a diversity of innovation trajectories and a plurality of perspectives in appraisal of agendas. He thus stresses participation, precaution, and responsibility given that the benefits of science are often not self-evident, and that different social groups may have disparate preferences.

Bozeman’s proposed five-step program for making science more attuned to benefiting all citizens centers on graduate education on science’s social contributions, evaluation of research impacts, ring-fencing curiosity-driven science while making other research more accountable, diversifying the research working force, and fostering public participation on the goals of science.

I fully endorse this plan. And I point out its similarity with some of the European initiatives on responsible research and innovation, for example, in terms of gender or participation.

I’ll also note that comparing his plan with the perspectives of Mazzucato, Schot, and Stirling raises interesting questions. Are decentralized and piecemeal steps as suggested by Bozeman more likely to succeed than the grand schemes of Mazzucato’s missions? To what extent should or could public agents coordinate with innovation actors (further downstream) to achieve transitions à la Schot? How can a “public value science” be supported in controversial contexts (e.g, labor and environment) while keeping Stirling’s attention for diversity and plurality?

Bozeman’s provocation succeeds in showing that a sizeable part of research is now serving mainly the privileged and potentially harming the disenfranchised. It also is spurring much-needed discussion on how science policies could help in making research (again?) a progressive force in society.

Senior Researcher

Centre for Science and Technology Studies, Leiden University

Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex

Cite this Article

“Who Benefits From Science?” Issues in Science and Technology 37, no. 1 (Fall 2020).

Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, Fall 2020