As a society we are making huge investments, both intellectual and financial, in the life sciences. The casual observer might expect thereturn on this investment to be highly quantified and positively clear-cut. But that casual observer would be disappointed. Evaluation of social and economic returns on research is extremely spotty, as Dana Dalrymple, of the US Agency for International Development, points out on page 10 of this issue. Outcomes assessment can be a tricky activity. Right now the virtuous circle of investment, return, and further investment can be only faintly drawn.

There's a growing realization, however, as witnessed by two recent workshops hosted by European and UK agencies, that research assessment must move to center stage. The talk is of outcomes – in terms of health gain across society and contribution to the economy – replacing the more easily measurable output parameters such as the number of scientists trained, or...

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