You’ve probably seen this floating around the other Seed blogs this week:
Since they’re funded by taxpayer dollars (through the NIH, NSF, and so on), should scientists have to justify their research agendas to the public, rather than just grant-making bodies?
I’m late to the game, but like others, my answer is “no”–with caveats. Elaboration after the jump.
First, it depends on just what one means by “justify”, which is a bit of a loaded term. Scientists are already commonly accused of arrogance (admittedly, at times rightly so), and suggesting we need to “justify” our research programs to the general public–most of whom lack advanced scientific training, and many who lack even basic science literacy–will cause many to scoff. As many people learn when submitting a grant application, even those outside of your narrow field may have difficulty understanding just what you’re doing with your research. Even researchers within a field may have difficulty understanding some methodology. For example, a colleague of mine recently borrowed some books I have on molecular epidemiology in order to brush up, because so many of the grants this colleague had to review used these types of methods. One can imagine how the average citizen with no understanding of either molecular methods or epidemiology would judge such grants.
Second, it’s difficult at times to see the benefit in some types of basic research. Indeed, many in the public scoff at some of these seemingly inane research experiments. This story about scientists studying the so-called “Cheerio” effect got a lot of criticism, but it has much wider-ranging applications than just your breakfast cereal. Similarly, physicist Mark Newman has done some very interesting work looking at co-authorships of scientific manuscripts or social relationships within a high school. These may seem esoteric and a waste of money, but he’s applied the knowledge learned to the spread of infectious disease. Indeed, applied research with an immediate, obvious benefit to the population is easier to sell: developing a vaccine or a drug to treat a particular disease is much easier to accept than research looking into, for example, the evolution of a population of fish in a lake in Michigan.
That brings me to my third point: conflicts between the public and scientists with what research is “justifiable” in the first place. Scientists understand the value of research that some may consider “controversial” or even morally repugnant: animal studies, stem cell research, studies of homosexuality, even basic evolutionary biology, which itself is offensive to some in the general public.
So, should we have to “justify” our research to the public? No. I hope it’s obvious, though, that I do think it’s important that scientists work to communicate our work to the public–to help them understand what we’re doing and why it is an important use of their tax dollars, but I think it would be a mistake to grant them a voice in the initial “begging for money” portion of a research project.