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President's Corner

The customers of science

The following is based on a paper, "Who are the Customers of Science, What Should They Expect, What Do They Expect?" presented at the NOAA Postdoctoral Program in Climate and Global Change Summer Institute last June.

In the early stages of my science career, I had only a vague idea that there were customers of science. It was not as if I thought of science as an entitlement. It was more that I didn't think about what the sponsors of science expected. I thought that getting a Ph.D., doing good research, and publishing high-quality papers in peer-reviewed literature were all that mattered. If you did all of these things, you would have a lifetime career, and you didn't have to pay much attention to customers.

Walt Roberts knew better. He said, "It's wonderful to have an opportunity given to us by society to do basic research, but in return, we have a very important moral responsibility to apply that research to benefiting humanity." Walt understood that the customer of science is society.

Science is big business in the United States--an approximately $160 billion per year business for all science (basic and applied research and development). Society is indeed the customer of this business, the benefactor and, we hope, beneficiary of science. With the increasing competition for limited governmental funds, scientists are being asked to be more responsive to this customer. And, as with any business, if the needs and wants of the customers are not understood and addressed, science will be in trouble.

Beyond the general statement that "society" is the customer of science, who are the specific customers, the subgroups of society, and what do they want? Customers with special and legitimate interests and needs include the sponsors of science, policymakers in government and industry, the tax-paying public, the media, and scientists themselves. All of these customers want advancement of knowledge, high-quality research, honesty, fairness, objectivity, responsible behavior, and accountability. In general, the scientific community is responsive to these requirements. But each group has its own additional needs. The sponsors, both government and industry, want science to be relevant to their mission. For example, NOAA sponsors research that is relevant to the NOAA mission, such as environmental stewardship; Ford Motor Company sponsors research relevant to building better, more efficient cars. The sponsors also want ownership: to be given credit for the research they sponsor.

Government policymakers are another type of customer; they want, or at least say they want, research results and information useful for developing wise policies. They want results that lead to better health, air and water quality, protection of life and property, and prosperity. Unfortunately, science often creates additional quandaries for policymakers by uncovering new problems and new uncertainties, or by providing results that are difficult to deal with politically. Cynics speculate that some policymakers don't really want better, more precise scientific answers; uncertainties give them an excuse to delay, or avoid altogether, unpopular actions that more definite answers might require.

Industry wants information that is useful for short-, medium-, and long-range planning, and they want information that helps increase their productivity, efficiency, and, ultimately, profit.

The general public wants most of the things that the other customers want, but in addition they want interesting, entertaining results. They also want information that is useful to them in their daily lives: for example, health information and weather forecasts.

The media represent another specialized customer. They want information, entertaining results, and most of all news--especially news that they can relate to the everyday activities of humankind in concrete terms. They also want controversy, preferring, for example, extreme points of view on possible climate change to the consensus of scientific bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Finally, scientists themselves are customers of science. They want to satisfy their curiosity, they want to discover the truth, they want to be elegant, and many want their discoveries and results to be useful.

Scientists in the United States have been generously supported since the Vannevar Bush era began shortly after World War II. Now the value of science is increasingly being questioned by the customers of science, and science faces the likely prospect of decreasing budgets for the foreseeable future. In this environment it is especially important that scientists pay close attention to the diverse, legitimate wants and needs of their customers.

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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Tue Apr 4 09:27:57 MDT 2000