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I am a current PhD student in a STEM field who does work in areas that mostly concern social good. That is, my work's outcomes would at first glance mostly help uncover a new societal issue or inform legislation (e.g., consumer protection).

I am considering what different academic paths would look like in this line of work, and I noticed that there are some big tech companies that have decently sized research groups on areas concerning social good. To give a concrete example, Microsoft Research, beyond all their traditional CS academic work, hires researchers to work on fields like sustainability, ecology, mental health, urbanism, etc. As an academic doing this work day-to-day, are you typically working on these areas with a monetary frame of mind (e.g., how it can impact existing products or how it can turn into a new venture)? Or do you just have freedom/funding to work on these topics simply because they are important and good for society? If that's the case, is the motivation for the company to fund this research something akin to corporate social responsibility?

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They are unlikely to be driven by short term economic concerns (next quarter profit statement), but are certainly related to long term, possibly very long term, economic effects.

Many do such things to enhance the corporate reputation, which certainly has monetary value, even if difficult to measure. In recent decades, almost all corporations put value to the shareholder as the topmost value. They need to justify anything that doesn't contribute in some way to that value. Not all companies are willing/able to take a long view - sadly. But it does happen.

And some of it is to try to understand the future as well as can be done. Mental health research, for example, can affect their workforce. Ecology can effect what future directions are likely to be viable for the company in the future. Global warming is likely to have a gigantic effect on business in the coming decades. Companies may want to get in to such research, especially when they see too little being done in the public sector.

And yes, some of it is done to influence legislation, but some of that is likely to be propaganda as much as true research. The tobacco companies did a lot of "research" on health. The oil companies did a lot of research on global warming. Mostly they hid contrary results or put an industry positive "spin" on what they learned. So, a bit of caution is suggested at the margins. You need to use your judgement, as always.

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    Spot on. OP, over your career you'll see an ebb and flow with this sort of thing. A typical business is accountable to its investors and shareholders, and there's a lot of baggage that goes with that. The activities you mention might simply be investments the organization is willing to make at present. Tradeoffs between short- and long-term profitability vary. An acquaintance of mine who was new to the board of directors of a large corporation once told me "How can we afford not to be involved in these things!" Years later it became "We're not running a nonprofit!" YMMV, good luck to you! Jul 26 at 16:10
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    Once upon a time, management gurus (e.g. Peter Drucker) would directly state that a company had an obligation to consider the society they were part of. Nowadays not so much, to everyone's detriment.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 26 at 16:46
  • There is a difference between say tobacco companies researching health, or oil company research on climate change and e.g. Microsoft Research (which is actaully an seperate, but wholey owned organisation) doing do - Lung health is antithetical to tobacco industry interests, and climate change is antithetical to oil industry interests, where as Mental Health is orthogonal to Microsoft's interests - it has no motivation to make things up one way or the other. Jul 26 at 17:58
  • @IanSudbery, yes, certainly. That was my point, actually.
    – Buffy
    Jul 26 at 19:11
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    @IanSudbery "climate change is antithetical to oil industry interests" It's not, actually. Many large oil firms have diversified into green energy as well.
    – nick012000
    Jul 27 at 3:13
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In the US you might consider exploring nonprofits, the financial accountability and dynamics will be quite different. One might imagine, over time, it becoming more convenient for a large organization to outsource these kinds of activities to a nonprofit organization, perhaps spinning-up and endowing the new organization. My crystal ball is fuzzy, particularly in the future direction, but this seems a plausible path, one worth mulling over.

As far as your question "Or do you just have freedom/funding to work on these topics simply because they are important and good for society?" goes, there are precedents with places like Bell Labs and IBM whose histories are worth exploring.

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