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Research Benefits Defy Easy Measurement

Ronald Reagan stated in an April 2, 1988, radio address that “ … although basic research does not begin with a particular practical goal, when you look at the results over the years it ends up being one of the most practical things government does.”

This widely held opinion has been notoriously hard to verify or quantify, leading to questions about appropriate funding levels.

Given the congressional interest in cutting federal spending on wasteful or ineffective programs, in 2010 Congress asked the National Research Council (NRC) to “ … evaluate, develop or improve metrics for measuring the potential impact of research on society ...”

An additional incentive for the study was the concern that although the United States invests more in R&D than any other nation and has the largest share of research institutions, scientific publications and patents, other countries, including China, are challenging this lead.

The NRC, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, Committee on Assessing the Value of Research in Advancing National Goals released the resulting report “Furthering America’s Research Enterprise” in pre-publication format in June 2014. The report is available free of charge on the National Academies website, www.nas.edu.

The report looked at basic research, defined as “ … experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundations of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view.”

The research and development pie is divided with 20 percent each to basic and applied research, and 60 percent to development.

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Ronald Reagan stated in an April 2, 1988, radio address that “ … although basic research does not begin with a particular practical goal, when you look at the results over the years it ends up being one of the most practical things government does.”

This widely held opinion has been notoriously hard to verify or quantify, leading to questions about appropriate funding levels.

Given the congressional interest in cutting federal spending on wasteful or ineffective programs, in 2010 Congress asked the National Research Council (NRC) to “ … evaluate, develop or improve metrics for measuring the potential impact of research on society ...”

An additional incentive for the study was the concern that although the United States invests more in R&D than any other nation and has the largest share of research institutions, scientific publications and patents, other countries, including China, are challenging this lead.

The NRC, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, Committee on Assessing the Value of Research in Advancing National Goals released the resulting report “Furthering America’s Research Enterprise” in pre-publication format in June 2014. The report is available free of charge on the National Academies website, www.nas.edu.

The report looked at basic research, defined as “ … experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundations of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view.”

The research and development pie is divided with 20 percent each to basic and applied research, and 60 percent to development.

The federal government funds about 60 percent of basic research. The private sector supports the majority of applied research and demonstration – and over 60 percent of total research.


The benefits of basic research are especially hard to measure because the link to new inventions or products may be very long and circuitous.

One example described in the report is Google’s 1997 patent application for the page-ranking algorithm that forms the basis of its search function. The patent application credits 20-year-old basic research in a variety of subject areas, supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies. The patent application also cites analogous social science research in the 1950s and 1960s that showed a person’s social status can be tied to the status of people who have a relationship with the person.

The report observed that the American research system is complex, decentralized, pluralistic, competitive, meritocratic and entrepreneurial. This means that it is difficult to determine which types of research, in the absence of other types, would lead to innovations.

In addition, the research system is unlikely to achieve a goal such as more research discoveries with commercial value by changing one or a few of the components of the research system.

In other words, picking winners would not be effective.

The report also details the limitations of efforts to measure research impacts and quality by organizations and government agencies in the United States and other countries. Commonly used metrics include tallying the outputs of specific research projects, such as the number of patents, publications or citations by other authors.

Broader research measures may incorporate both qualitative and quantitative rankings.

The study notes that the U.S. research enterprise has systems characteristics: Results or products may be the result of interactions between components of a system, not the direct product of a single component.

However, the study committee was confident that the research community can increase its benefits to society by developing new measures to guide research investments, based on understanding of what drives the research system and what makes it so productive.


The report concluded “ … measures can usefully quantify research outputs for many specific purposes, but that current measures are inadequate to guide national-level decisions about what research investments will expand the benefits of science.”

Alternatively, the report recommends that understanding and influencing what the report calls the three “crucial pillars” of the research system could be the way to increase the societal benefits of basic research:

A talented and globally interconnected work force – a work force built by investments in education and worldwide networks allowing researchers to share ideas and resources.

Adequate and dependable resources – for example, stable and predictable federal funding that attracts and retains researchers, and supports diverse institutions and scientific infrastructure.

World-class basic research in all major areas of science, which often provides the foundation of knowledge for future economically significant innovations.

In other words: To understand the research “system” you need to understand how knowledge is generated; utilized by well-trained, talented people; disseminated; impacted by external variables such as investment and infrastructure; and utilized by public and private entities.

The report suggests that existing measures could be used to assess each of the three pillars.

For example, the study committee proposes that novel use of data from agencies such as the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics could measure the movement of researchers and recent STEM graduates that underlie pillar 1.

Federal funding (pillar 2) is easily tracked and reported by many organizations. The extreme funding variations introduced by the stimulus (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) increases followed by funding cuts under the 2013 budget sequestration are documented, but impacts on the research workforce have evidently not been documented.

Typical measures of world-class stature (pillar 3) focus on outputs such as publications, patents and citations, and the quality of research facilities.


For additional information:

  • A related report was released in November 2013 by the Committee on National Statistics, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education: “Capturing Change in Science, Technology, and Innovation: Improving Indicators to Inform Policy.”
  • The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing on “the Federal Research Portfolio: Capitalizing on Investments in R&D” on July 17, 2014. Witness testimony and an archive of the webcast of the hearing are available at the committee website. It was Neal Lane, Rice University professor of physics and astronomy and witness at this hearing, who quoted President Reagan on the value of research.
  • Later this year Congress may consider the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Reauthorization Act of 2014, S. 2757. The bill, introduced in late July by six Democratic senators and informally called America COMPETES, authorizes basic and applied research at several federal agencies including the NSF. Information about the bill is at Congress.gov.

Taking action:

  • Every spring AAPG organizes congressional visits by its members. This is an opportunity to discuss with Congress and federal agencies issues such as petroleum geoscience research needs, access to federal lands, or the impact of federal regulations on oil and gas operations.
  • Every September, AAPG, the Geological Society of America, the American Geosciences Institute, the American Geophysical Union and other geoscience associations host Geoscience-Congressional Visits Day (Geo-CVD), when their members visit their representatives and senators to discuss research and policy priorities.

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