Quantifying the Impact of Science on the Economy and Environment

Ventana is applying its models to help the US Department of Energy understand and increase the impact of its investments in basic science and science infrastructure.

Both the outcome of scientific research and its future value are highly uncertain. On the one hand, the discovery process and the context that lends value to its outputs are contingent on a host of fluid, as well as intertwined conditions: societal, economic, political and – increasingly – environmental. On the other, the scope and even the nature of discovery become the harder to anticipate the further a scientific endeavor ventures into the realm of the unknown. Some lines of research are eventually abandoned after dissipating valuable resources, having little to show by way of returns. Others generate novel discoveries with tangible utility and may leave a footprint that transcends field boundaries, triggering the birth and death of far-reaching paradigms. The latter discoveries in turn affect society, economy, policy and the environment – the very context that induced their emergence in the first place – in a manner characteristic of complex adaptive systems that eludes conventional differentiation between cause and effect.

In configuring a science portfolio one would like to maximize the share of high-impact research endeavors. In other areas of investment it is possible to exercise some control over dispersing risk in portfolios by means of concrete criteria inspired by the quantitative analysis of their past performance. Yet assessments of even past discoveries, with the benefit of hindsight, are largely limited to aphorisms of little substance as guiding principles for establishing quantitative valuation criteria. The generalized value of science is contextual by nature, arising from the interactions of several subsystems entangled into a complex whole: the science enterprise itself, the economy, the availability of energy and other natural resources, the environment, public institutions, and society whose welfare we ultimately seek to enhance.

Such a high level of interdependence is a hallmark of complex systems, manifestly calling for a commensurate approach. So far, however, this inherent complexity has either been sidestepped as intractable – on grounds that attempting to predict the future value of science is a fruitless endeavor, or dealt with inadequately – seeking in a reductionist manner to interpret observations in terms of oversimplified causal relationships. As a result science policy lacks sophisticated risk-benefit assessment tools and, despite the high stakes, has to resort to unscientific improvisation and dubious criteria.Ventana is applying its E3 model with an added module elucidating the role of science in innovation to address this need.