The EU may piggyback on US efforts to measure the impact of research spending, as Europe struggles to find more reliable ways to assess the return on its investment in science.

A major push is under way in the US to work out how to measure the long-term impact of public support for R&D. Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic believe a common system would make sense given the global nature of science.

A large chunk of US President Barack Obama's stimulus package was devoted to research, but the administration's focus on transparency and accountability has heightened pressure to demonstrate a return on investment in science.

Dr Julia Lane, responsible for 'Science of Science & Innovation Policy Design' at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US, said there is widespread belief that investment in R&D breeds economic growth but this must be demonstrated using a robust performance measurement.

Speaking in the European Parliament on Wednesday (14 April), she said current ways of justifying research spending were too crude and that relying on anecdotal evidence of how science helps society was not good enough.

Many funding agencies simply describe the outcomes of their funding programmes, rather than scientifically measuring them and asking whether the money was invested efficiently.

Global approach needed to 'science of science policy'

However, Lane acknowledged that systems for addressing this problem are currently not well developed. Filling this gap is a problem common to all developed nations with an interest in innovation, she said, suggesting Europe, the US, Brazil, Japan and others should work together to agree a system for measuring return on investment.

The US is working on a new system known as Star Metrics – Science and Technology for America's Reinvestment: Measuring the Effect of Research on Innovation, Competitiveness and Science.

The initial motivation for this is to examine whether job creation has resulted from stimulus spending but Lane wants a more sophisticated system capable of accounting for the knock-on effects of science spending.

This could include direct job creation, helping to create a skilled workforce which benefits the private sector, generating patents, improving healthcare and the environment, she said.

"We talk about these kinds of benefits from science spending but we do so through anecdote rather than data," said Lane.

She said the focus should be on looking at what scientists at all levels do with public supports, adding that US federal support even played a small role in the genesis of companies like Google given that co-founder Sergey Brin was once a graduate student who benefited from taxpayers' money.

Scientists are often reticent when it comes to auditing systems. But the model under development in the US has sparked fears it could hurt basic research and foster a new layer of red tape.

This, says Lane, is not what will happen with Star Metrics. She believes there is enough data generated automatically to design an electronic system which "scrapes" the Internet for relevant information about publications, patents, company registrations and details of where science students work after graduation.

"Brazil has already done a great deal of work on this automated use of existing information, which minimises the burden on scientists but captures large amounts of data," Lane told an audience of MEPs and officials from the European Commission.

Developing this system remains a huge task, she said, but a global effort would help speed up the process.

The first step could be to develop a universal researcher identification system which would help "track and credit" researchers who move between continents.