Spending Other People’s Money

Another week, another question from the Seeders. This week they ask us:

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?

My answer is below the fold.

It all depends on how one defines “the public”. If you’re asking me whether a school teacher, a construction worker, and a street vendor should be evaluating grant proposals and making funding decisions, I say no. It’s not that the general public shouldn’t have an influence on what research gets funded. They simply do not have enough training to adequately evaluate research grants.

But I don’t think that’s what the question is getting at. The public already has an indirect role in determining what research gets funded. The budgets of US governmental funding agencies are determined by Congress — not always with satisfactory results for the scientists begging for cash. In my many one experience getting a grant funded, I had to write a short description of my project so that my Congressman could understand it (or some staffer in his office in charge of science and technology). Apparently, legislators read these abstracts to determine whether the funding agencies are doling out money in a satisfactory manner. And, yes, my description was all about how important my research is in the study of evolution, so I hope Dicky S reads it.

All of this assumes that the public cares enough about scientific research to want input into the process. They care enough about stem-cell research to campaign for bond measures, but I don’t think population genetics would get them as riled up. Most people probably don’t understand what scientific research is and how funding dollars get spent. I think it’s more important for us to explain our research to the public rather than justify our grants. That way they understand how the money is being spent, so that they can support legislators who fund agencies they would like to see receive money.

So, yes, scientists should (and currently do) have to justify their research to the public (I’m not sure about “research agendas” as I have no idea what a research agenda is).