Economics serving society

How to identify the relevant research topics in order to best tackle a societal issue?

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Lorenzo Cassi, Agénor Lahatte, Ismael Rafols, Pierre Sautier, Élisabeth de Turckheim

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Assessing the contribution of research to address complex global problems or grand challenges - such as climate change, food security, poverty reduction, the risk of global pandemics - has become increasingly important in science policy as governments are under pressure to justify and legitimise their spending in research.

Conventional bibliometric techniques have been successful in providing tools that allow estimating production and research performance of scientific fields. However, addressing a societal problem does not only (or necessarily) require improving the production and quality of research on that problem. Conducting a lot of research of the highest quality about part of the knowledge base (e.g. electricity generation) is not enough if other parts of the knowledge are not achieved (e.g. electricity distribution).

Addressing societal problems requires to link and potentially to coordinate of a variety of stakeholders with different areas of expertise and pursuing diverse research avenues. Assessing scientific production and quality is not enough.

In this article, Lorenzo Cassi, Agénor Lahatte, Ismael Rafols, Pierre Sautier and Élisabeth de Turckheim explore a mapping method to help identify research topics relevant for a societal challenge, in this case obesity. Obesity is “a critical global issue”: nearly 30 per cent of world population is estimated to be overweight or obese and it concerns both developed and developing countries. Obesity is an interesting issue for this exercise because it is a serious condition in which different types of policy interventions can be prioritised.

The methodology is based on the Sarewitz and Pielke’s (1) approach of alignment (or lack of thereof) between the science produced (the knowledge supply) – and what is required to satisfy social needs (the knowledge demand). Since research is conducted in conditions of highly incomplete knowledge, uncertainty plays an important role in scientific advancement – which is why it is important to keep a diversity of available options in research portfolios. The ‘best’ choices on the side of desired outcomes (knowledge demand) should be plural as well, because a given problem can be addressed with a variety of technologies. Which of these technologies is ‘best’ is uncertain (since they are not yet ready), and ambiguous (because different social actors may differ on their preferences).

The method compares semantic analysis of publications (a representation of science supply) and policy documents (an instance of societal demands). The mapping of documents is carried out using topic modelling, a method that relies on text and can thus be used both for scientific and policy (societal) documents. The mapping of science supply shows five main areas: biology and metabolic processes, studies on health risk and diseases, treatments, lifestyles and social environment. The map of policy documents shows four areas: hazardous chemicals and food, related diseases, food industry and adverse effect, prevention and remedies.

The comparison between the two maps seems to suggest that most research related to obesity is focused on biology and medicine and only small part of the obesity research portfolio is related to policy agendas, mainly through public health and social science topics. In other words, this analysis would suggest to develop relatively more research on social environments and determinants rather than on metabolism or treatments. Finally, while what presented is a technical exercise, the authors propose that this type of mapping methods should be used interactively in close collaboration with domain experts as part of a large methodology that includes deliberation with diverse expertise and stakeholders.


Original title of the article: Improving fitness: Mapping research priorities against societal needs on obesity
Published in: Journal of Informetrics - Volume 11, Issue 4, November 2017, Pages 1095-1113
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(1) Sarewitz, D., & Pielke, R. A. (2007). The neglected heart of science policy: reconciling supply of and
demand for science. Environmental Science & Policy, 10(1), 5–16.