Adventures in Ethics and Science

It’s time for this week’s installment of “Ask a ScienceBlogger”. The question of the day is:

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?

Although in earlier posts I’ve taken up the question of what the public might get out of (taxpayer funded) basic research, I haven’t yet dealt with the question as it’s being framed here. So let’s give it a shot.

The underlying premise of the question is that the taxpayers, as the folks putting up the money (by paying their taxes) for scientific research, are entitled to a return on that investment. The question is just how much control members of the public ought to have in micro-managing what they’re getting for their money. Like discerning diners at a fine restaurant, can they taste the wine and then send it back?

It seems like then you’d want a public that was in a position to make a reasonable evaluation of the wine (or in this case, the scientific research agenda). Don’t get me wrong, it would be wonderful to live in a world where members of the public at large had enough scientific expertise to make that kind of evaluation. But last time I checked, that’s not the prevailing state of affairs.

If we’re really interested in the public getting value for the tax dollars, it’s possible that the value is best located in the good it does a society to have active scientists in its midst. Think of it as the same kind of return on investment that the public gets from supporting education — we’re all better off having a better-educated populace. But, does the fact that taxpayers in California pay for a substantial portion of each California resident’s degree in the UC or CSU systems mean that the students ought to get the taxpayers’ approval for their course of study? Can John Smith from Sacramento insist that none of his tax money go toward philosophy majors? Can Sue Sloan from Death Valley demand repayment from all the students who sleep through their morning classes? It seems like that would be a pretty bad idea — partly because, as a society, we also think autonomy is of some value.

So, I don’t think adding “public approval of detailed research agenda” as an additional stage of review of grant proposals is a great idea. However, there’s a sense in which I think maybe scientists should be able to justify their research agendas to the public.

Converting public resources to private goods is, in my view, a fairly crummy thing to do. If your research is supported with public money, the public shouldn’t have to pay again to reap any benefit from the knowledge you made on the public’s dime. One way to keep the goods your research produces public is to share the knowledge you find with the public. Publishing your results is one way to go, but it’s also nice to be able to give non-scientists an explanation of what your research is about and why it matters. There are no guarantees that folks will understand, but there’s something valuable about trying to keep those lines of communication open. It might turn some people on to science. They might even call their legislators at budget time to make sure science gets sufficient funding.

The interesting question here, I think, has less to do with giving the public the power to micro-manage science and more to do with the question of scientific openness. It’s not that the public ought to tell scientists exactly what to do with tax dollars. Rather, the public should have access to the details, and the scientists should be forthcoming with information about research funded by the public.

Not wanting the public to know about what you’re researching or how you’re researching it should be a red flag for the responsible scientist. If there’s no way you might be able to persuade a scientifically literate and open-minded public that your research could be of value, maybe the public shouldn’t have to pay for it.


  1. #1 Thomas Winwood
    May 31, 2006

    I think the return the public should expect from the investment they unconsciously make to scientific research is decent and reliable results to further enhance the body of scientific knowledge. As long as there exists a majority of honest scientists doing good work and being credited for it then the investment has easily paid itself back.

  2. #2 Laura
    May 31, 2006

    What I find completely fascinating about this whole question is that the public doesn’t seem to want to micromanage anything else. Public funding of a spy program? Okay with us. Public funding of torture? All in the name of war on terrorism. And yet, with something that clearly benefits them, they want to have veto power.

    I do think it’s a good idea to keep them informed about research, but they shouldn’t be able to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to it.

  3. #3 Craig Pennington
    May 31, 2006

    Converting public resources to private goods is, in my view, a fairly crummy thing to do.

    I’d say it is not merely crummy, but morally wrong. What should the public expect for our money? The data (all of it,) any analyses done on that data and all conclusions drawn. I have no problem with private companies repackaging the publicly available stuff and playing gatekeeper to that (see Edgar Online as an example from the finance world. They repackage the data freely available online from the SEC and sell it, along with some other value adds, to firms such as Yahoo!) Artifically excluding the taxpaying public from the fruits of publicly funded research is wrong.

  4. #4 Lab Lemming
    June 1, 2006

    I think that scientists funded with public money should give the results of their research- free of charge- to huge foreign corporations, who will then retain copyright and restrict access to those who don’t pay stupendous subscription fees.
    For example:

  5. #5 Laura
    June 1, 2006

    But the public isn’t excluded from seeing the research. What we’re talking about here is letting them have a say in whether certain research gets funded and well, most people (and I would include my own intelligent self) do not have the education to make those decisions. Heck, I can’t even read the journal articles, but I do read “popular” science magazines and publications which often publishes the results of various research projects and also sometimes has stories on research in progress. How many other people do you know that do? I don’t have the numbers on me, but I’m willing to be that Scientific American’s circulation is lower than Glamour’s or The National Inquirer.

  6. #6 Solomon Rivlin
    June 1, 2006

    As a scientist funded by public funds I become furious every time I watch a TV commercial of a pharmaceutical company, which claims all the hard work and investment the company has made in gaining the knowledge that allowed them to develop their new, unbelievably expensive drug. The public should be informed that the bulk of the basic knowledge leading to the development of new drugs is being gained through public funding of research in academic institutions. We should look for ways to force the corporations who benefit from this knowledge to compensate the public for generating it.

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