I'm an undergraduate studying molecular biology, and I am thinking of going into science. In Timothy Gower's "The Importance of Mathematics", he says that many mathematicians just do whatever interests them, regardless of social benefit. I'd rather do something with some interest or technological benefit to people outside of a small group with a very specific education.
Does anybody have any thoughts or links on judging the impact of the work on a research topic?
Clearly, the pursuit of a research topic must be producing truth to be helpful, and I've read Vladimir_M's heuristics regarding this.
Here's something I've tried. My current lab work is on the structure of membrane proteins in bacteria, so this is something I did to see where all this work on protein structure goes. I took a paper that I had found to be a very useful reference for my own work, about a protein that forms a pore in the bacterial membrane with a flexible loop, experimenting with the influence of this loop on the protein's structure. I used the Web of Science database to find a list of about two thousand papers that cited papers that cited this loop paper. I looked through this two-steps-away list for the ones that were not about molecules. Without too much effort, I found a few. The farthest from molecules that I found was a paper on a bacterium that sometimes causes meningitis, discussing about a particular stage in its colonization of the human body. A few of the two-steps-away articles were about antibiotics discovery; though molecular, this is a topic that has a great deal of impact outside of the world of research on biomolecules.
Though it occurs to me that it might be more fruitful to look the other way around: to identify some social benefits or interests people have, and see what scientific research is contributing the most to them.