Qualitative Metrics in Science Policy: What Can't Be Counted, Counts

Article excerpt

The past half-century has ushered in a veritable revolution in the science of metrics, as the surprisingly long life of Moore's Law and related advances in information technology have led to a vast reservoir of quantitative information ripe for study with powerful analytical tools. For instance, captured in the research literature are methods to measure the quality of one's health, to quantify athletic performance, and to determine something as innately intangible as consumer confidence, Even in the domain of science and technology, economists have made efforts to assess the return on investment (ROI) of science and engineering research funded by government and industry, finding that university-level research is one of the best long-term investments that can be made. Yet, in the United States, academic research--and research universities more broadly--have long remained exempt from any real adherence to performance-and ROI-based metrics despite this nation's quantitative revolution.

The reasons for this are as much historical as institutional, going beyond just the difficulty of measuring research ROT. Under the auspices of Vannevar Bush, the chief scientist-policymaker in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, science and engineering R&D, having demonstrated their value in World War II, gained an elevated stature in the public sphere as critical and unimpeachable assets to the U.S. superpower state. A social compact of sorts was struck between science and society--the federal government would support scientific research, primarily in universities, and the benefits would flow to students (via education) and the general public (via technological innovation). Accordingly, few questioned the value that research universities offered the nation, and there seemed little need for systematic evaluation, let alone metrics.

A changing compact

Now, more than six decades after World War II and more than 20 years after the Cold War, the social compact between research universities and the federal government is being questioned. Research universities are being asked to answer two difficult questions: Is the investment in university research paying off, and is current university research well structured to meet the challenges of the future? Today, the answers to these questions are no longer being taken for granted in the affirmative.

The shift from agnosticism to skepticism of scientific research is perhaps exemplified most clearly in the appropriations data, Research funding as a portion of the federal budget and as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen by more than 40% since 1970, with the funding for the physical sciences and engineering cut by 50% during the same period. In recent years, even biomedical research funding, which has been popular with the public and politicians, has lost ground to inflation. Partly because of constraints on funding, federal agencies have increased pressure on the various research communities to defend funding levels and set priorities, particularly in fields such as particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, and atmospheric and ocean sciences that require expensive experimental facilities. And although rigorous application of quantitative evaluation metrics has not yet become a routine part of budget planning for federal R&D programs and their advisors in the research communities, change is on the way. Already, the Government Performance and Result Act (GPRA) of 1993 requires that all funding agencies develop strategic plans, set performance goals, define metrics, assess progress, and explain any failure to meet goals. GPRA does not require metrics for every research project that an agency funds, but it clearly has altered the landscape. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) revised its review criteria in 1997 to better reflect its GPRA strategic plan by including a second "broader impacts" criterion.

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To be sure, research isn't the only aspect of the modern university's portfolio that is being questioned; academic institutions have also lately come under fire for emphasizing the quality of research over education. …