Gene Expression

This week’s “Ask a Science Blogger” 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?

This question is loaded because how you interpret it really colors how you respond. I would say, no, the public doesn’t really understand any specific science, just as physicists and biologists (or biochemists and population geneticists) don’t really understand the particulars of other fields. Unfortunately, science is the domain of specialists, even across and within disciplines. This isn’t a good thing, but I don’t have a magic potion to cure it, so until we find a better solution peers are the only judge we have of quality of work besides reality. If the public had a direct input I’m afraid astrophysists would be submitting proposals to “know the mind of god” and biologists would start picking model organisms based on how cute they were (though they might pussyfoot around with what they’d have to do to those organisms), and god knows how many doctors would want to study the effect of prayer on mortality (seriously, if only a small % of grant applications get approved, would no one take the low road if popular vote counted?).

As it is, the public does have a voice via intermediaries. There is a reason that clinically oriented research gets so much money, and the military also funds a lot of science. In the end, science does have checks and balances, but it is just too esoteric of a practice to expect popular input to do anything besides distort it even further from the ideal of objective investigation. There is already a lot of politics in science, this would just exacerbate the situation.

Addendum: A compromise might be to have two pools of of granting agencies. And a researcher who accepted funds from one pool could only accept funds from that pool for a set amount of time before applying to the other pool. Over a decade we might be able to figure out if elite vs. non-elite funding was different in the quality of research produced (I assume a mix of popular/public participation and scientists themselves). If there was no difference then Vox Populi, Vox Dei! say I.

Postscript: I count representatives of the people in a legislature as direct popular participation.


  1. #1 Greco
    May 25, 2006

    There is a reason that clinically oriented research gets so much money, and the military also funds a lot of science.

    Something I’ve wanted to find out for a while: do the military fund any basic science? I imagine that even in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons (no, of course no one is producing those last two), they pick what is discovered in civilian research and apply directly to weapons.

  2. #2 razib
    May 25, 2006

    do the military fund any basic science?

    a lot of NIH funded stuff is “clinical” on paper only. i don’t see why the military would be any different.

  3. #3 Rikurzhen
    May 25, 2006

    do a google search for DOE genome

  4. #4 Orac
    May 25, 2006

    Something I’ve wanted to find out for a while: do the military fund any basic science?

    The military funds basic and translational biomedical research in breast cancer, prostate cancer, and a number of other biomedical programs. In fact, the Army is rather unique in that it emphasizes innovation more than almost anything else. That means that, if you have an intriguing idea but not much data, you can still get funded. For example, for its Idea Award program, 50% of a grant application’s score is based on innovation.

    I’ve gotten two Army grants myself in the last five years, the last of which finished in April. In fact, the grant writing that I was whining about the last couple of weeks was for the two Army grants I submitted on Tuesday, both to the breast cancer program. Given the funding constraints these days (because of the Iraq War and general budget constraints, last year only around 6% of applications to the breast cancer program were funded), I’m not optimistic that I’ll get either one.

  5. #5 Ben M
    May 25, 2006

    Greco: Yes, the military funds basic research—they did quite a lot in the 60s and 70s, then turned most of it over to NSF; since 9/11, I understand that the “basic/applied” balance has gone even further towards applied. But they indeed still give grants to university researchers to do interesting things with only far-future connections to weapons or defense. Things that come to mind: the Navy does some fairly basic astronomy research, especially related to GPS, astrometry, and timekeeping. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research … Projects … Agency?) funds all sorts of computer science, materials and applied physics, optics, nanotechnology, and nuclear/radiation detection—which sounds very engineering-y, but in reality is as basic as anything NSF or DOE funds.

  6. #6 Rietzsche Boknekht
    May 25, 2006

    It certainly would be in the best interests of the state to fund scientific disciplines with some relevance or applicability to the military.

    In my opinion, we need a country, a sovereign state where scientists had all the find they’d ever need to carry out whatever interested them, where that could have maximal fun. Maybe that’s a dumb idea:) Remember, human motivations being what they are, scientists probably love what they do anyway. Not every study any scientist would like to carry out would be deemed as “needed” or essential for the greater good. And every now & then, i hear discontented citizens asking “was this what they needed my tax money for?”

    But on another point, for example, were the HapMap Project or the Human Genome Projects undertaken just so guys like fascinated, mayby-nutty bloggers could get neat data on population genetics the world over, or were they undertaken more for the common good, for advancing knowldge of the genome w.r.t health & medical matters.

    IMO, all the neat data that’ll keep pouring in from the undertaking of these projects is rather an unavoidable consequence of what we’re doing – gaining intricate knowledge of the genome for a more serious purpose.

    I support funding for stuff like this; otoh, i’m not sure how much i support funding some other stuff, like more military/security oriented techology development. Although, the development of such technology can also one day allow us to colonize the universe – which might, one day not so long from now, be in humanity’s best interests. I don’t know.

  7. #7 Wowbagger
    May 25, 2006

    The DOD does fund a lot of basic research in condensed matter physics. However, it doesn’t fund particle physics (though many would debate if particle physics is in any meaningful way more “basic” than condensed matter).

  8. #8 Coffee Mug
    May 26, 2006

    i’m pretty sure the armed forces are also desparate for any insight into treatment for PTSD. some folks are trying to model it, but its hard to figure out what an ‘iraq war’ model would look like for rats. the most promising, but highly controversial, avenue is probably reconsolidation.

  9. #9 Dan Dare
    May 26, 2006

    I think it’s always been accepted that the value of specific lines research must be subject to peer assessment, because when it comes to matters of arcane scientific knowledge, laypeople are not competent to judge its value. That is why wise governments seek advice from committees of experts.

    Naturally, broad policy must be in the hands of our democratically elected representatives. Also governments have a right to monitor how expert committees dispense public funds. But it would be a foolish legislature that tried to direct scientific research in detail.

  10. #10 gc
    May 27, 2006

    Over a decade we might be able to figure out if elite vs. non-elite funding was different in the quality of research produced

    This is one of those experiments which you don’t need to do to know the answer.

  11. #11 Enro
    June 23, 2006

    I am sorry, but I feel some kind of condescension in your answer to that question. It seems you don’t realize that scientists also can be led by ‘non-scientific’ arguments when choosing a model organism or a research topic (read Latour’s books in science studies!!). They are also motivated by fame, money, success, and so on. Once we admit that it is not ‘objective and pure science’ vs. ‘the ignorant rest of the world’ I am sure we can agree that there is no reason why public funded research sould not be undertaken to satisfy public’s willing and, eventually, make our dreams of better life come true. This may sound ridiculous to you but, as an agronomist, I am confronted with such decisions in my research: either develop new GM varieties (rejected by public) or breed using genetic diversity from ancient varieties. Or think about energy research… In France so far, this is driven by experts (who can also change their minds and priorities), and I would feel more comfortable if it would somehow involve the public. They have their word to say, and means exist to make them participate even if ignorant at first (look in Sweden and nordic countries!).

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