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Government-funded scientific research reflects public interest, Northwestern study finds

‘Concerns about public funding not being aligned with public uses are unfounded,’ researchers say

Around the world, governments fund scientific research with taxpayer money as a public good. But how well does science serve the public interest in practice? A new study led by Northwestern University researchers finds that public funding is well-aligned with public use, and that the public tends to value research that scientists also see as impactful within their fields.

Government-funded science in the U.S. is viewed by many as a more obscure public good than the National Parks or the Smithsonian. Projects can seem niche or obscure, and this can make it difficult for people to know if they are benefiting until a clear breakthrough, like a new vaccine or cancer therapy, is produced. Both researchers and policymakers have also expressed concerns that research is too siloed.

But in a new paper published July 7 in Nature Human Behavior, the Northwestern Kellogg School of Management’s Benjamin Jones — a professor of strategy — and Dashun Wang, a professor of management and organizations, systematically quantify the practical value of scientific research, finding that science is focused on high-value areas for the public more than one might think.

“One of the key takeaways is that we observe consistent alignment between public priorities for scientific research and the research itself,” Wang said. “The alignment could come from both sides; push and pull. In the case of COVID-19, the scientific community chose to substantially pivot to addressing COVID, but this was also driven by remarkable demand from the public and increased availability of NIH funding.”

Wang and Jones collaborated with Northwestern doctoral student Yian Yin, along with Yuxiao Dong and Kuansan Wang of Microsoft Research.

The researchers used five vast datasets and machine reading technology to connect millions of scientific publications across all major research areas with their downstream uses in three key domains — government documents, which inform policy; the news media, which inform the public; and patent data, which inform new technologies.

Their goal was to understand if and how the research was being used by the public. All the papers included in the analysis were funded by the U.S. government and published between 2005 and 2014.

Overall, they found widespread connectivity between scientific research and public use. Further, the funding of scientific fields was closely correlated with public use of the research within those fields. For example, the subfields of computer science that are relatively likely to see their papers cited in future patents tend to have higher average funding per paper.

“Our findings suggest that concerns about public funding not being aligned with public uses are unfounded,” Wang said. “There is alignment in key areas; in other words, funding hasn’t gone to waste.  I think this evidence is going to really help inform discussion around this going forward.”

The findings highlight different uses of scientific results across the three public domains. For example, computer-science and mathematical findings are more likely to be applied to patents than policymaking, while social-science results — from economics, psychology and other fields — show up less often in patents but more in policymaking and news media. Biology was unique in its representation across all three public domains studied.  

The researchers also found strong alignment between hit papers within science — those in the top 1% by number of citations in their field — and public usage. This result held true in all research areas and in all three public domains, indicating widespread alignment between what scientists consider impactful and what the public takes in.

Jones and Wang also noted that the study emphasizes the value of using the large datasets available today to study other high-level questions about science as a public good in ways that were not previously possible.

“High-scale datasets allow us to trace science’s impact in previously unattainable ways, shedding new light on the role of science in society,” Jones says. Wang added: “That’s the brighter future this work represents.”

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