As soon as parliamentary elections are in sight, economists start to pull out their calculators: how much influence will the plans of the various political parties have on citizens’ wallets? Which party emerges as the ‘winner’ of all these calculations?
The benefits of education and research usually lie in the distant future, however. As a result, they are not reflected in the calculations. In fact, this kind of extra expenditure only seems to feature as a cost item in these models.
“This is also what we hear in the corridors”, says Mirjam van Praag, president of VU University Amsterdam and chair of the KNAW committee that examined the value of science. “It’s tempting for political parties to scrap investments in science in order to come out of the calculations more favourably.”
There is increasing criticism of such economic models. But how should you establish the value of science, then? The previous Minister of Education, Culture and Science (Ingrid van Engelshoven) asked the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) for advice on this subject.
This has now been offered to her successor, Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf, who incidentally is also a former president of the KNAW. The Academy, which calls itself the ‘guardian and interpreter’ of science, often issues recommendations.
The value of science is ‘bigger and broader’ than we can perceive, as the KNAW underlines in the report. “What manifests itself as the value of science is often just the tip of the iceberg.”
You might develop a new drug or work on a technical innovation, for example, but not all results are this readily apparent. Training students, for example, or the contribution to democracy and the rule of law – these are things that cannot be calculated. Moreover, some innovations have an impact that you cannot predict: the Internet was born when scientists working on the CERN particle accelerator wanted to exchange information more easily.
In order to do justice to all possible values of science, at least to some extent, the arithmeticians of the planning agencies would be better off using the concept of ‘broad prosperity’, the Academy advises, as this includes more factors than just the economic situation in a country. Broad prosperity include themes such as health, happiness and social cohesion.
In addition, the planning agencies currently make ‘disappointingly little’ use of what is measurable. In their work, they should call upon the many sub-studies that already exist. “The planning agencies should start working on this right away”, say the authors of the report.
Value of education
Van Praag, an econometrist herself, gives the example of spending on education. “The planning agencies currently feel that they cannot measure the value of education in the right way. At the same time, thousands of studies say that a year of extra education produces a financial return of six to ten percent. But if you don’t include that fact, you’re basically rounding off the return to zero. Or worse still, because only the expenditure is taken into account and not the revenues.” The planning agencies must therefore do their best to take this value into account, according to the KNAW.
Is the report lagging behind the facts, now that this government has released so much money for education and research? Van Praag: “We are in a slightly more luxurious position at the moment, but this may not always be the case, as the economy is declining.”
It would therefore be wise to capture this value – in fact, the KNAW prefers to speak in the plural, namely ‘values’ – in a kind of dashboard for ‘broad prosperity’, which demonstrates how the investments will ultimately produce returns. “And that doesn’t have to be down to the nearest decimal point”, says Van Praag. “Because there are some things that we just don’t know yet. But these are things that we can work on.”
Isn’t there a danger in the fact that, according to this story, investments in science always pay off? That would make it difficult to determine when enough is enough. It remains a political consideration, says Van Praag. “Science has a very high value, however, so investments in this field are interesting for a country. The main problem is that you can’t currently compare them to alternatives, such as investments in health care.”
The report covers science in general, even though numerous directions and disciplines exist. Can you actually lump them all together like that? “There is simply so much that is influenced by education and science”, replies Van Praag. “If you look at the development of the population, at healthy living or the resilience of democracy… you simply can’t say that this one discipline yields more than another.”
Education is very important
During the coronavirus period, billions were flying around all over the place. Did that make the discussion about big spending easier? Van Praag does not quite think that is the case. “But during the coronavirus period, it became clear that education is of great value. On the basis of reliable sub-studies, you can see what happens when people do not receive education for a few months: it is detrimental to student development. Inequality increases right away. People with a vulnerable background suffer more than others. Once again, it shows the importance of education.”
The report was presented to Robbert Dijkgraaf, Minister of Education, Culture and Science, last Friday. It was sent to the House of Representatives on Monday.