From middle school classrooms, to college campuses, to laboratories, individuals are learning to do research, engaging in research, and recruiting participants for their studies. Proper research techniques are taught from an early age at many educational institutions, and teachers often encourage students to go and explore what they are interested in and passionate about. At a young age, research comes at little monetary cost. To conduct effective research, tweens and teens typically only need access to a public library or the internet. However, more complex research that happens on university campuses and in laboratories often requires extensive resources—monetary resources, scientific resources, animal resources, and human resources. Thus, it is important to consider the social impact of research before conducting studies, so as not to waste valuable materials and lives for studies that do not have the possibility of benefitting some aspect of society.
If research can be transformed into products that can be placed on a market and consumed by humans, it is less difficult to determine if a study will benefit society. For example, if a study is looking into creating a new, less expensive, antihistamine, then the outcome of that research could lead to a novel drug being placed on the market. In this situation, the connection between research, results, and consumption is clear and comprehensible.
However, what if a study is looking into something less tangible, like the effects of quality mentorship on the retention rate of women in science? The outcomes of this research are likely to provide society with valuable information regarding how to increase the number of women in STEM fields. Though there is no marketable product that directly correlates to the results of this research, its outcomes would predictably be beneficial to improving equity in society. Moral values are not a tangible currency, yet they hold significance arguably incomparable to anything monetary.
With every study, its upsides and downsides have to be carefully considered. If the results of research have significant potential to have a positive social impact, while doing minimal harm, then the study is likely one worth conducting. However, if harm will override societal good, then the study is probably not worth conducting. Of course, there is no firm line by which to judge the pros and cons of research, and humans must utilize their rationality and their value systems in order to make the proper decisions about research.
Bornmann, Lutz. “What Is Social Impact of Research and How Can It Be Assessed? A Literature Survey.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 64 (February 1, 2013). https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.22803.