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.


  1. #1 Dave S.
    May 31, 2006

    I agree that to “justify” research done using public money is simply not a good idea, mainly because the public has no context from which to judge what reasearch is good and what isn’t. As you point out, this can be difficult even for professional scientists not in that specific field.

    However the process should be as transparent as possible and any in the public who wishes to should have access to any information gleaned using public monies.

    Another question is who owns the research once it’s complete. Does it fall under the public domain, or is it the property of the scientists who did it?

  2. #2 DDS
    May 31, 2006

    I agree with Tara on this point. NIH and NSF use scientific peer-review to effectively fund the best research, though some argue that innovation is lost in the process.

    Technically, grants from the Federal Government are gifts to the Institutions that submit them. They don’t belong to the PI. So, technically, the institution “owns” the results. That said, most institutions have rules about PI rights, sharing of royalties, publishing etc. When a PI moves to a new school they have to get permission from their old school to take the grant with them. The old school doesn’t have to say yes but most do. See this link for an example of a school saying no (

    Also, NIH has started trying to make the relevance of grants clearer to the general public.

    “Instructions have been added requiring the PI to succinctly (2-3 sentences) describe the relevance of the proposed research to public health. Plain language is suggested.”(

    NSF requires something similar I think.


  3. #3 outeast
    May 31, 2006

    That last comment, actually, raises a concern with ‘justification’ that has not been sufficiently dealt with: we already have problems with overly hyped potential benefits of research (cf. human genome project) and this would ratchet up the spin a good few notches. Which would then, in the long term, further damage the reputability of research…

  4. #4 mycotropic
    May 31, 2006

    “I do think it’s important that scientists work to [b]communicate[/b] our work to the public”

    I’ve found that just about any untrained person who’s motivated to actually ask me about what I do is fully capable of understanding my little corner of science. When someone asks me about my research I feel that it [b]is[/b] my job to justify my gloves actually. [b]They[/b] paid me to do what I do and they deserve something for their investment. If they don’t personally have the context, it’s up to me to give it to them. Luckily for me, my area is cardiovascular disease in type 1 diabetes and I find that most people have some experience with either diabetes itself or cardiovascular disease in one form or another.

    That said; my day to day work is subject to peer oversight and if I had to justify everything I do I’d never get anything done. I agree that it would be a mistake to give the general public more access then they have already. If a taxpayer has a beef with my approach, they are more than welcome to go to the NIH and follow the proper channels to question my research.

  5. #5 jbruno
    May 31, 2006

    “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.”

    Point well taken, Tara. I believe that the scientific community needs to double its efforts in the 21st century and beyond to reach as much of the general public as possible. Communication seems to be a distinct and rather obvious flaw in the community (though, in scientists’ defense, much of what is studied & related is not well understood).

    Are you in support of “open-sourcing” journal articles?

  6. #6 Lou FCD
    May 31, 2006

    Though I agree with the general principle, it seems like there’s plenty of justification just in yesterday’s issue of science. Lots of good biology stuff this time ’round.

    The Cold Sore’s Clever Camouflage-
    Down the Drain and Into Your Food-
    Mad Cows and Metals-
    A Genome for Cellular Anchors?-
    Immune Response Gets Under the Skin-
    How an Herb Might Help the Brain-
    Thumbs Up for Leech Therapy-
    Bye-Bye Birdie-

    And that’s all just from the top half of the front page. This stuff don’t get done for free, you know.

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