ISSUE-037

Scientists and other researchers should focus their research on areas that are likely to benefit the greatest number of people.


Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the recommendation and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, describe specific circumstances in which adopting the recommendation would or would not be advantageous and explain how these examples shape your position.


What should scientists and researchers focus their research on? Some people claim that they should target areas that are likely to benefit the greatest number of people because most research is government-funded, which ultimately comes from tax-payer money. However, from my point of view it is very hard to identify which fields or projects have the maximum potential of the greatest benefits. That is because scientific research by nature is exploratory, and in practice it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to predict the outcome of a research project.

To begin with, I certainly understand those who argue scientists’ work should benefit the greatest number of people, because if a scientific project is publicly funded, then scientists have a moral obligation to work for the sponsors. In this specific case, the public is the sponsor of the project, and hence researchers must work to enhance the well-being of the public. This is the very reason that in a proposal submitted to the National Science Foundation, a section called “Broader Impact” must always be included. Here, “Broader Impact” refers to the societal benefits that can be indirectly derived from this project, such as educational opportunities and outreach to socially disadvantaged groups. Therefore, one can view the requirement of “Broader Impact” as a way to fulfill researchers’ social responsibilities. It is the same responsibility that demands scientists to work on problems that can likely benefit the greatest number of people.

However, while the discussion above seems to be built upon reasonable logic, it is too idealistic to certain degree. From a practical standpoint, how can scientists predict which areas will most likely produce results that can benefit the greatest number of people? The nature of scientific endeavor is exploratory, which means that researchers are finding answers to the unknown. Sometimes the answer will apparently benefit a lot of people, but in other times the immediate positive effect of a discovery on the society may not be readily seen. For instance, the field of quantum mechanics is an active research area in the mid-20th century that aims to explain how the most fundamental particles work to construct our physical world. At that time, perhaps no one would be able to foresee the societal significance of this field, which later becomes the cornerstone of modern information technology including computers and cellphones. Almost anything electronic today that relies on signal processing on a chip benefits from achievements in quantum physics. Hence, if we had stopped funding for quantum mechanics on the ground that it seemingly did not provide much benefit to ordinary people, we would not enjoy the modern convenience that stems from it. Clearly, this

invalidates the proposal that researchers should focus their work on areas that are likely to benefit the greatest number of people.

To sum up, while it is reasonable to argue that scientists have an obligation to work on behalf of the interest of the public, it is not practical for researchers to focus their research on areas that are likely to benefit the largest number of people because one cannot confidently predict the future significance of a given field. If we indeed adopt this policy recommendation, the well-being of the society will be damaged.

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