Years ago, I worked on the Research Committee of the 7th American Forest Congress. There was a “communities” member on the committee (I believe it was Carolyn Daly) who said from the perspective of forest communities “Why are scientists always telling us what we can’t do? Why don’t they help us figure out what we can do?”
For many of us, our scientist heroes were folks like George Washington Carver, who used science to help make people’s lives better. Today there are many scientists who carry on that tradition just fine in all disciplines. However, it has happened that even within my lifetime, the reins of the science budget have drifted farther away from people who want problems solved. You’d think that Congress could fix that, and they have tried, but the inertia of investigator-initiated research and science community control is very strong.
Here’s a study by Kyle Myers of the Harvard Business School who studied how much money it costs to get a scientist to change their topic.
But, how should we decide what types of research to fund? What diseases, what populations, what methodologies should we focus on? We could leave this up to the scientists themselves. And in the United States, this has become a popular choice. The “investigator-initiated” grant, where scientists propose their own ideas to be evaluated by their peers, is commonplace. This is especially true at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the single largest funder of biomedical research in the world.
This investigator-initiated approach makes sense. Scientists are, after all, the people who should know the most about what ideas are the most promising. But the incentive structure of science, with its emphasis on priority and prestige, may not lead scientists to prefer the same things as society would like. And, like the rest of us, scientists may be influenced by certain preferences, biases, or other constraints that could prove misaligned with social goals. It is not surprising then that many countries, and notably the EU’s Horizon Europe research framework, rely on more “top-down” or “mission-oriented” styles where policymakers directly allocate funds to specific topics.
The NIH balances this tradeoff by using a combination of both investigator-initiated grants, as well as a number of “targeted” grant mechanisms that solicit proposals for particular types of research. These targeted mechanisms request ideas that focus on a particular disease, methodology, or population, and have become increasingly popular (see fig.1). But the NIH, and most other scientific funding agencies, have long assumed that scientists will be willing to adjust their research trajectories in response to these sorts of targeted grants or mission-oriented policies. However, whether these adjustments actually occur in practice – do scientists do what policymakers ask them to? — and just how costly they are to induce, has been unclear.
The good news is that we don’t have to look very far for tangible lessons. Most of the smart products we have in our bags and pockets came from investments that were more far reaching than a simple “science-push” explanation provides. They came from the ability to connect science to solving concrete problems – that is, through “missions”….
Today we have the opportunity to direct innovation in similar mission-led ways, which will be as bold as the moonshot programme was, but will instead be aimed at the multiple social and technological challenges we have. These will be inspired not by Cold War challenges, but by what one could call the war on poverty, the war on climate change and the urgent need to create societies that are more just and sustainable.
Today’s political leaders are not short of societal challenges that they can turn into concrete missions: climate change, ageing populations and rising inequality. I have been advocating a mission-led approach in the European Union and setting out potential missions for a plastic-free ocean, carbon-neutral cities and decreasing the burden of dementia. These are all significant challenges of our time that need bold and inspirational leadership.
Missions are set at the top without being prescriptive on what the innovation required to solve the problem must be. They then facilitate bottom-up innovation to achieve the goal. We need to use the full power of government instruments – from prize schemes to procurement – to crowd in multiple bottom-up solutions. The moonshot, for example, required innovations across different sectors to be successful, including nutrition, computing and clothing as well as spaceflight.
It will also be important not to ignore the humanities and social sciences in missions.
I’d only argue that the social sciences are more than “not to be ignored.” Many new technologies have foundered on the shoals of cost or public acceptance. Maybe Mazzucato, as an economist was unwilling to toot her own discipline’s horn.