Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Mothership Question #4

The mothership recently began asking us a question each week and then linking to our answers each Wednesday in a blog carnival-like format from the staff blog, Stochastic. (more about the rules here). This week’s question 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?

“Justify?” No. The public does not have a clear and precise understanding of scientific research so the public is not qualified to make decisions about how research money should be spent.

As it is, the public already has input into this decision-making process because our elected congresscritters allocate funds to NSF, NIH and several other government granting agencies, funds that are then distributed to their peers in research, typically on a competitive basis.



  1. #1 llewelly
    May 29, 2006

    I hope all of you science bloggers (I don’t think there even one of you who thinks the public ought to play a direct role in grant allocation?) are prepared for the possibility that some anti-science propagandist will seize this spin opportunity.

    It’s one thing to justify the ‘No’ answer to people who essentially agree that (a) ignorant opinions do not necessarily deserve equal weight, and (b) NSF panels and the like, despite their flaws, are sincerely(*) concerned with the best interests of the taxpayers whose funds they are allocating. It’s another thing to justify it to those who’ve been conditioned into anti-science hostility, and furthermore, have no grasp of the huge gulfs of knowledge and expertise that exists between scientists and non-scientists (or, for that matter, scientists of different disciplines).

    (*) Relative to most bureaucrats, that is. Yes, I’ve read Kevin Vranes’ post on this.

  2. #2 Tabor
    May 30, 2006

    Gee, the public determining the science agenda? Now where is that ranking I had of students in the U.S. vs. students globally. ( I happen to know for a fact that these panels are political enough already!)

  3. #3 Troy
    May 30, 2006

    Perhaps, if such justification were required, the scientific community would have more incentive to educate the public. Of course, that would take time on the part of the scientists as well as the public and I have no idea how to compete with reality shows for attention.

    The unfortunate fact is that if the benefits of research are not clear in the minds of the public and their representatives, support will eventually be withdrawn and then everyone suffers.

  4. #4 Osame Kinouchi
    May 31, 2006

    Perhaps the controversial word is “direct influence”.
    Here in Brazil the state has also funding for cultural projects (like movies), I dont know the situation in USA.
    Should the public have direct influence about the themes to be explored in these public funded movies?

  5. #5 Joe
    June 1, 2006

    Doesn’t this question put the cart before the horse? It’s the publicly-supported grantmaking agencies which should have to justify their research agendas to the public. If their agendas are clear, any individual grant only has to clearly connect to the agenda.

    Good point about our Republic, by the way. Let the Congress do what it’s supposed to. (In fact, make it.)