Influence of scientific research

by alex_zag_al1 min read9th Apr 20125 comments

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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.

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I think it would be much more fruitful to look at the problem the other way around. From the inside perspective of a particular scientific project it is ridiculously easy to think of all the potential benefits your work may have in the future, uncertain as they may be. This is especially so with publicly funded STEM research projects, which won't be funded unless the PI manages to convince a grant approval board that there is some potential for benefit. But from the outside perspective of someone choosing which project to work on, it should be obvious to see that some projects simply have a lot more expected benefit than others (even if you ignore from your consideration alleged trump cards like existential risk reduction, ETA: and probably even if you limit your scope to a particular field you are already trained in).

^ Exactly

The cool thing about being human is, our passion's automatically triggered in response to compassion. You find something that'll really help the world, and it'll pull your life with more force than fifty sith lords.

You're in microbiology - shouldn't have to look too hard.

I am in the position of choosing which project to work on, as I am going to be applying to graduate schools. I wouldn't be posting this if it was obvious to me which have much more expected benefit than others. How is it obvious to you? How do you distinguish?

One thing that one needs to be careful with with that sort of thing is that something can be only incidentally cited. A strict citation check won't detect that. But yes, some areas are definitely more directly helpful than others. Regarding what Gowers has to say, I'd say that that's true in general, but some mathematicians do do work on more directly applicable work.

History is probably the best guide here.