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The meaning of 'transformative research'

In early March a two-day workshop was held at the National Science Foundation (NSF) headquarters on the meaning of 'transformative research'. The term encapsulates an increasingly central question across both U.S. and foreign science agencies: in a hyper-competitive global economy, with pressing challenges in many areas (energy, food, water, disease, etc.), how can we do a better job of picking research projects that are true game changers? In terms of NSF, the question is often put in terms of funding transformative research (TR).

NSF has defined TR as follows: "Transformative research involves ideas, discoveries, or tools that radically change our understanding of an important existing scientific or engineering concept or educational practice or leads to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science, engineering, or education. Such research challenges current understanding or provides pathways to new frontiers." The growing centrality of TR is reflected by the fact that NSF has recently modified its merit review criteria to include TR; established an agency-wide working group on the topic; added a number of funding mechanisms (e.g., EAGER, CREATIV) to support TR; and provided training to program officers on the importance of TR.

This focus on TR grew out of a perception among some that NSF tended to fund mainly incremental advances — a perception found in Congress, among some members of the scientific community, and some members of the National Science Board (NSB), NSF's governing branch. This increased attention to TR suggested the need to seek a more thorough conceptual grounding of the term.

Thus the workshop described here: officially titled "Transformative Research: Ethical and Societal Implications," last week's meeting involved 25 researchers drawn from a wide range of fields. Attendees included engineers and material scientists, biologists and chemists, sociologists, economists, and policy analysts. In addition to workshop participants, the audience in attendance consisted of program officers from NSF as well as visitors from other agencies such as NIH, OSTP, USGS, and DOE.

The workshop itself had three overall themes: to reflect on the meaning of 'transformative research;' to review NSF's current use of the term in areas such as its merit review criteria and funding mechanisms; and to think about the ethical and societal dimensions of the growing push toward research that upends existing scientific paradigms. Results will be forthcoming in fairly short order: a white paper on the results of the workshop is being produced, and there will be a special issue of the journal Social Epistemology next year devoted to the subject.

This workshop was organized by two philosophers (the above authors). Why philosophers? The meeting forms part of a continuing effort in what we call the 'philosophy of science policy' — a theoretical complement to the growing field of the 'science of science policy' as promoted by SciSIP, NSF's flagship program in the Science of Science and Innovation Policy. In our use, the philosophy of science policy has two main threads. There is a hermeneutic component, where we seek to offer conceptual analysis of the basic terms of science policy (our previous efforts have included 'broader impacts' and 'peer review'). And there is an ethical component, where we consider the social, political, and cultural dimensions of policy issues.

This workshop covered both angles. The meaning of the term 'transformative' — indeed, whether we can even find a meaning for the term — was discussed. Compare, for instance, the meaning mentioned above, which NSF features prominently on its website, with the definition of TR as research that "meets fundamental technological or scientific challenges, involves multidisciplinary work, and involves a high degree of novelty." Is this second definition merely a shortened version of the first, or does it represent some totally new conception of TR? Does the latter definition, for instance, focus more on applications of science than on basic research? If so, is TR actually code for something like 'research that is closer to application or development' rather than 'research that will change the way research is done'? What are the implications of these definitions for identifying potentially transformative research? Might one version be easier to detect than the other? Might peer review do a better job at identifying one than the other?

There are also a number of ethical questions raised by the focus on transformative research. If science becomes more transformative, who is doing the transforming, and who is being transformed? That is, does transformative research imply the need for stronger means for democratic participation? And what, after all, is the goal of 'transformation'?

Such questions highlight the role of a philosophy of science policy, which broaches perennial questions concerning freedom and justice in the context of contemporary policy debates. It is unclear that we will ever settle on the answer to such questions. But in a democracy, even asking such questions is a democratic act.

The authors gratefully acknowledge NSF support for this workshop provided under SES grant No. 1129067, while emphasizing that any opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF or any of its employees.

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