Pharyngula

Ask me a question!

The new “Ask a Science Blogger” question of the week 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?

NO. No way.

The public has no context in which to understand most research programs and aren’t at all qualified to assess a grant proposal. This would be an invitation to the ignorant to proxmire good research. Can you imagine how the creationists would react to proposals in evolutionary biology? Or cat lovers to experimentation on animals?

On the other hand, I do think that researchers have an obligation to educate the public about how they are using federal funds. They don’t have to justify, but they should explain. It might be a useful condition of a grant to require that the recipient give an open lecture summarizing in terms a non-specialist can understand the results of their work, at the end of the grant period.

Comments

  1. #1 NelC
    May 26, 2006

    Democracy is a fine thing, but it’s not appropriate for all decision-making. I lack the expertise, and more importantly the time, to contribute to all the decisions that have to be made in my society. The best I can hope to do is have some say in how those decisions are made.

    If, heaven forbid, it ever turned out that grant-making bodies were corrupt and self-serving, for example, then I would hope to make my voice heard in the process of setting the system right again. But I might even delegate that small authority if the government or some other body did a good job of sorting the mess out.

    A citizen should be no more required to decide on everything, than a particular neuron should contribute to every thought. Do my Broca’s neurons decide where I should eat?

  2. #2 Johnny Vector
    May 26, 2006

    I’m not sure it would be useful in most cases to require a lecture for non-specialists, given that speaking to non-specialists is a particular skill. Sure, it’s easy for people like you and Phil Plait, but given the number of really bad collocquia I’ve been to, I’m not sure it would work as a requirement.

    However, it ought to count in the positive column if you do something like that. In most cases, effectively communicating with the general public (or teaching undergraduates for that matter) seems to be at best ignored by those who choose the rewards for scientists.

  3. #3 Flex
    May 26, 2006

    Absolutly right!

    Although I would suggest that maybe a wider audience might be reached if the results were presented in two forms. The formal paper for peers, and an informal paper to be available to the public (and written at the non-specialist’s level of understanding).

    Moreover, as writing an informal paper to be presented to the public may impact on the researcher’s time, possibly a grad student could improve their comprehension and composition skills by taking on this task. (For all I know, they do this already.)

    But requiring grant applicants to submit their proposal to the general public for approval would be irresponsible. It suggests that the general public is interested and knowledgable enough to understand the why and wherefor of the research. It also assumes that the public, as a body, is rational enough to decide which research is important to pursue. When is the last time anyone claimed the public, as a body, is rational?

    Cheers,

    -Flex

  4. #4 Mark Paris
    May 26, 2006

    I agree; the idea is absurd. Even as a scientist I would not be competent to judge most grant applications in many fields without research to figure out just what it’s about. I don’t have time for the thousands of applications, and most people have neither the time nor the inclination. But that’s the way a republic form of government works. You designate others to do the things that it’s impossible to have the entire population do.

    I do agree that making the results accessible and understandable (if possible) to the general public is a good idea.

  5. #5 Ithika
    May 26, 2006

    I like Flex’s idea for an informal, layman-ready paper. Hopefully something that’s freely available too. Half the problem for anyone who is interested in science is that they can’t actually get hold of papers even if they know what they’re looking for. My local library doesn’t carry any journals, just copies of the local newspapers 🙁

    An informal paper might help to reduce the public’s reliance on mainstream newspaper’s mangling of science press releases. Most (all?) newspapers don’t even bother to tell you what the paper’s called when run their “Scientists have found…” stories.

  6. #6 Tim Makinson
    May 26, 2006

    Even beyond the context/qualification argument (which I agree with) there is also the fact that there’s an enormous amount of other taxpayer-funded spending out there, little of which gets justified directly to the public, and much of it is far less obvious in its value than scientific research. At the very front of the queue to explain themselves should be the earmarked-pork-addicted senators and congressmen.

  7. #7 CCP
    May 26, 2006

    “I like Flex’s idea for an informal, layman-ready paper. Hopefully something that’s freely available too.”

    The prestigious online journal PLoS Biology (Public Library of Science) does this–each technical paper is accompanied by an “executive summary” sort of intelligent-layman-level distillation. It works quite well.
    Incidentally both versions are always freely available to all:
    http://biology.plosjournals.org

  8. #8 rrt
    May 26, 2006

    I’m totally on-board with everyone else here regarding this question, including the “layman’s summary” paper. If anything, I’d think that’d be fun for most researchers to write, no?

    However. Need I point out that this position, especially when stated in PZ’s usual (appropriate and refreshing) no-nonsense fashion, is unfortunately vulnerable to accusations of elitism, arrogance, and Mad Scientism? “No! The public is too stupid to understand what we’re trying to do here! Now give me my funding (which includes my six-figure salary!) And find where Igor is with that brain…muuhahahaha!”

    I understand how this isn’t the case, but I’d sure like to know how to mitigate this kind of portrayal. The “layman’s executive summaries” might help a bit, I suppose, but that won’t always help the public understand the context of a specific project.

  9. #9 speedwell
    May 26, 2006

    Good ideas in the blog post, but I have a different idea for a better balance, in a democracy, between the legitimate and justifiable needs of research scientists and the rights of taxpayers to hang onto as much of their earnings as possible and to have a say in what to do with the part they’re made to give up.

    Researchers are researchers, not politicians. It’s wasteful to force them to do things that are not research, like marketing their research directly to taxpayers. In a representative democracy, it’s presumed that taxpayers elect politicians who make good, fair decisions that are in the interest of their constituents as a whole. It’s the politicians’ responsibility to hire researchers to do work that is in their constituents’ interest. The researchers need only educate the politician, and the politician should take care of selling it to the public.

    Of course, if I was actually so naive as to believe that politicians were so easily educated and absolutely reliable in acting for the interests of those they represent, you’d have to lock me in a booby hatch with my Tarot and power crystals. Some portion of the constituency, and it may be as much as a large majority, may understand the issue and want the research to be funded, but the ideological blinkers of the politician may stop the government from allowing the grant. The only recourse the public has in such a case is to wait to vote the politician out of office, provided the other candidate is better than the incumbent (not always the case, of course). They can’t take back their tax money and go to a private foundation and fund the research on their own.

    Suppose they could. Suppose that government got out of the grant business and stopped collecting the taxes to fund research. Suppose that, instead of trying to convince some elected religious fundamentalist, the researchers needed only to convince people who already agreed with them. Wouldn’t that be easier?

  10. #10 Oggutho
    May 26, 2006

    I can assure you that even trying to get the public to do something that is in their own best interest is an uphill fight. It’s hard enough to convince people that they need clean drinking water I couldn’t imagine the fight to get a grant for molecular biology. But on the bright side the field of turtle stacking would reap great benefits.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down

  11. #11 Caledonian
    May 26, 2006

    There’s a very good reason the Founding Fathers gave the general public almost no actual influence over the functioning of government. Why in the world would we give them control over the day-to-day functioning of science?

  12. #12 speedwell
    May 26, 2006

    Caledonian, I can’t figure out if you mean “I don’t think we should give the general public the ability to decide if research should be funded,” or “I don’t think the government, since it is made from members of the general public and elected by them, should have any right to say what gets funded and what doesn’t.”

    Consider that the Constitution does not have a word to say about whether the government should fund science. You might consider such a thing part of “general welfare,” but that gets you back to square one.

  13. #13 Flex
    May 26, 2006

    CCP wrote, ‘The prestigious online journal PLoS Biology (Public Library of Science) does this–each technical paper is accompanied by an “executive summary” sort of intelligent-layman-level distillation. It works quite well.’

    Thanks!

    I’ll promote this in our departmental newletter too (as editor I have that privledge). After all, every drop of knowledge helps dilute the ocean of ignorance.

    Cheers,

    -Flex

  14. #14 Roman Werpachowski
    May 26, 2006

    The public should have the right to decide how much money goes to science. The way they are spent (i.e. on what research) should be controlled by scientists (of course, there should be some control over that so that the money are not spent on booze, luxury call girls and yachts).

  15. It might be a useful condition of a grant to require that the recipient give an open lecture summarizing in terms a non-specialist can understand the results of their work, at the end of the grant period.

    The collaborative grant that pays for my grad school came with an outreach requirement. We’re required to have “community days” a few times a year where everybody from retirees to high school teachers to politicians’ aides comes by to hear a layman’s summary of the research. It helps that we do atmospheric research near Los Angeles, so people actually care about and can relate to some of our research. We usually get about fifty or sixty people coming out, which isn’t a huge number considering the population of our area, but those who do show up usually seem to get something out of it.

  16. #16 Brock Tice
    May 26, 2006

    Just a few days ago I was awarded an American Heart Association pre-doctoral fellowship for stipend support. Two things about that fellowship stand out with regard to this post.

    1) I’m very happy to (now) be paid by a professional/fundraising organization, rather than from money that was forcibly taken from citizens and

    2) I have to write a lay summary for the AHA to post on their website, so that the public can keep up with what the AHA is working on. They advised me to write as though talking to elementary schoolers (no joke!).

  17. #17 Nymphalidae
    May 26, 2006

    The entomology department has a museum that people can come visit, and we do community outreach by visiting schools and setting up displays at community events. Most people really don’t care about the research we’re doing, and why should they? They like to look at the pretty bugs, and go “eek!” at the hissing cockroaches and that is the extent of it. The public probably isn’t interested in most of the work that goes on in the sciences and wouldn’t want to make any decisions about it.

  18. #18 ajay
    May 26, 2006

    Maybe it would be better to write and post a short layman’s summary, rather than giving a lecture? Or both; but I think posting the summary would be more helpful. Say, 500 words on what your project found and why this is interesting, made available for free after the actual paper is published.

  19. #19 LBBP
    May 26, 2006

    So what if we rephrase the questions:

    Since they’re funded by taxpayer dollars, should military contractors (such as Haliburton) have to justify their spending to the public, rather than just the pentagon?

    Personally, I am not comfortable with a “No, no way!” answer to that question. Of course, there are going to be some things that are classified and other things that the general public is not going to understand. But, the public that is funding their activities is entitled to at least cursory oversight of how and what the money is being spent on.

    I don’t think “pure” science research should be any less accountable. It is up to the science establishment to convince the general public of the importance of “pure” research.

    Why is it important to spend billions of dollars to smash subatomic particles? I think it’s very important, but I’m a science enthusiast nerd. Most people aren’t. If the science establishment did a better job enlisting public support and participation, maybe we wouldn’t have so many pseudo-scientists and religious nuts to contend with. The beginning of Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World talks about a cab ride with a common guy who thought he was into science, you know, astrology, homeopathy, xenophology, all the important research. Most people think that science is either about those things, or about disproving those things, oh, and sometimes scientists make bombs or drugs.

  20. #20 PZ Myers
    May 26, 2006

    Maybe we could just require every grant recipient to maintain a lab blog, with comments.

  21. #21 Davis
    May 26, 2006

    (of course, there should be some control over that so that the money are not spent on booze, luxury call girls and yachts).

    But those are the things that make grad school tolerable!

  22. #22 speedwell
    May 26, 2006

    Maybe we could just require every grant recipient to maintain a lab blog, with comments.

    You may have said this tongue-in-cheek, PZ, but it would be really awesome with moderated comments and a nominal access fee. I see it as being like teaching a course on the side, and requesting the class to register and pay tuition would be very appropriate.

    After all, if the requirements are reasonable, then access to the public is available for those who most value such things. Nobody said the access had to be free.

  23. #23 Dendroica
    May 26, 2006

    I don’t see what purpose that would serve. For one thing, it would politicize research proposals before they even get off the ground, especially in already sensitive areas. Any research questions would just end up getting played by grandstanding politicians without regard to actual merits. For another, research projects may not look useful to an untrained eye, even though they are laying the groundwork for more practical applications down the line.

    I vote for representatives who I trust to appoint appropriate experts to oversee the grant decisions. That is enough for my say in the matter.

  24. #24 Azkyroth
    May 26, 2006

    The public should have the right to decide how much money goes to science.

    -Roman Werpachowski

    The problem with that is that the general public is too short-sighted, too anti-intellectual, and too much a victim of education funding cuts to be able to make a good decision on most scientific matters. Especially those that aren’t immediately profitable or don’t have immediate tangible payoffs.

    The way they are spent (i.e. on what research) should be controlled by scientists (of course, there should be some control over that so that the money are not spent on booze, luxury call girls and yachts).

    -ibid

    This is implicit. Are you intending to imply that such a thing has ever happened? With scientists, I mean, not televangelists. And if so, how about a citation?

    You may have said this tongue-in-cheek, PZ, but it would be really awesome with moderated comments and a nominal access fee. I see it as being like teaching a course on the side, and requesting the class to register and pay tuition would be very appropriate.

    After all, if the requirements are reasonable, then access to the public is available for those who most value such things. Nobody said the access had to be free.

    -speedwell

    The access has to be free.

    There, you were saying?

    Seriously; if things like distribution of information (or creative efforts, for that matter) can feasibly be done for free there’s no goddamn reason not to make them free, plenty of good reasons to do so in terms of giving more people access and inconveniencing people less in accessing it. No one ever said, in the sense of having made a convincing case, that a person “has to” (or has any moral grounds to) demand monetary compensation every time they so much as lift a finger for the benefit of others.

  25. #25 interrobang
    May 26, 2006

    PZ, I love “proxmire” as a verb. *chuckle* Not only has it evocative historical context, but it also appears to be a wonderful portmanteau of “proxy” and “quagmire,” even if it isn’t.

    Brock, you can have my share of taxes, which I assure you are not “forcibly taken” from me. I actually like paying taxes. I get all kinds of cool stuff just for paying my dues for belonging to this particular social contract. I happen to like this one, as I think it’s about the best one possible. If that implies you have to emigrate, sorry. 🙂

  26. #26 Abel PharmBoy
    May 26, 2006

    As both a grant reviewer and reviewee, I was reminded in preparing my own post today that scientists themselves are humble enough to recognize the limits of their expertise to evaluate research proposals. Members of the general public would be far less likely to do so.

    For example, this is why NIH maintains over 110 separate review panels of experts to evaluate these each of these specialized areas – and that’s just for research funded by the US Dept of Health and Human Services. I don’t mean to come off as elitist, but many in the public sector don’t truly appreciate the degree of painstaking detail and critical thinking that goes into training to be a researcher, executing projects, and evaluating the proposals of peers.

    However, private funding agencies like the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation already include public representation in the review process in the form of voting patient advocates. The experience is reportedly mixed depending with whom one speaks. This foundation, like the DOD and American Cancer Society, also requires two research abstracts, one technical and the other for lay audiences.

    I do like the idea of communication with the public during and after completion of the research. Harvard’s nutrition and epidemiology pioneer, Dr Walter Willett, is the king of humbly educating the public on how their tax dollars allow his research team to directly impact human health. I wish he had a blog.

  27. #27 Jonathan Badger
    May 26, 2006

    Personally, I am not comfortable with a “No, no way!” answer to that question. Of course, there are going to be some things that are classified and other things that the general public is not going to understand. But, the public that is funding their activities is entitled to at least cursory oversight of how and what the money is being spent on.

    Nor am I comfortable with it (in theory*). After all, we certainly expect tax-funded experts in other fields to justify their expenditures. As a society we don’t just say “Condoleezza Rice has a doctorate in international relations; she doesn’t need to justify the excessive cost of the war she helped create.” Instead, despite our lack of training in international relations, we all feel entitled to our own opinions on that subject.

    [*] In theory, because I *do* understand (and partly share) PZ’s fear that the public would slash science funding if it could. But that’s more or less cynical distrust in democracy even if it’s justified.

  28. #28 Roman Werpachowski
    May 27, 2006

    The problem with that is that the general public is too short-sighted, too anti-intellectual, and too much a victim of education funding cuts to be able to make a good decision on most scientific matters.
    That’s why I would tend to leave the control over the spending targets to scientists. But it’s the taxpayers’ money and they are in their rights to decide whether science gets 2% of GNP or 5%.

    But here’s a question: suppose that the physicists become obsessed with the string theory and decide to use public funds for nothing else: no material science, no quantum optics, etc. Shouldn’t the public intervene? After all, string theory is less likely to bring immediate benefits to the industry than the other two branches of physics. And the public is right to expect some commercial benefits from science.

    “The way they are spent (i.e. on what research) should be controlled by scientists (of course, there should be some control over that so that the money are not spent on booze, luxury call girls and yachts).”
    This is implicit. Are you intending to imply that such a thing has ever happened? With scientists, I mean, not televangelists. And if so, how about a citation?

    This was an exaggeration, but I’ve heard stories (in Poland) about how some money were misappropriated and went to private pockets instead of funding research.

    People being people, this is possible in science too. Scientists are not saints.

  29. #29 Keith Douglas
    May 27, 2006

    The Disgruntled Chemist: Atmosphere research near LA. That must be … unique. 🙂

    LBBP: But justify in what sense? Pure research is done for the sake of understanding the world. If the public doesn’t agree with that goal, what do we do? (Frankly, I don’t know, so I’ll be happy to consider answers. :))

    BTW, there’s an interesting (but IMO slightly flawed) little book by the philosopher Philip Kitcher on this subject matter (amazon.com program link):

    Science, Truth and Democracy

  30. #30 shyster
    May 28, 2006

    The research should be presented to the public and justified. That does not mean that the researcher has to do it, but there has to be an ascending hierarchy of communication ability: Doctor “A” explains to and supervises Doctor “B” who can and does talk to us poor dumb folk who fund this research. Remember, at some point, someone had to explain Newton, E=MC2, and even Darwin to us folk. Perhaps if the teachers and researchers had been better at communicating we wouldn’t have many of today’s problems (it’s a dream).
    By the way, the pork bill representatives do face review for their spending; it’s called an election. They keep getting elected because of our greed and fiscal ignorance, not a lack of understanding.

  31. #31 LilLeaguer
    May 30, 2006

    I would think that the “The citizens need to vote on every grant proposal” argument is a strawman, but many here seem to be taking it seriously.

    Should the citizens have oversight over the way their research funding is spent? Yes, though usually through their elected representatives and the official agencies.

    Should the citizens be able to direct research funding for political reasons, e.g. investigating the efficacy of prayer or cutting it off for stem-cell research? Yes, even though I personally disagree with my government on those issues.

    Let PZ answer this: “Since they’re funded by taxpayer dollars, should defense contractors have to justify their specific projects to the public, rather than just to the Defense Department?”

  32. #32 LilLeaguer
    May 30, 2006

    I would think that the “The citizens need to vote on every grant proposal” argument is a strawman, but many here seem to be taking it seriously.

    Should the citizens have oversight over the way their research funding is spent? Yes, though usually through their elected representatives and the official agencies.

    Should the citizens be able to direct research funding for political reasons, e.g. investigating the efficacy of prayer or cutting it off for stem-cell research? Yes, even though I personally disagree with my government on those issues.

    Let PZ answer this: “Since they’re funded by taxpayer dollars, should defense contractors have to justify their specific projects to the public, rather than just to the Defense Department?”

  33. #33 Sailorman
    May 31, 2006

    I’d have to agree on the issues you study.

    I’m wondering, though, how you feel about the concept that all publicly-funded research should be made publicly available for free…

  34. #34 angryScientist
    June 9, 2006

    I agree. However, noting the leftward slant of the blogmeister here, it is at least a little ironic to find him in such an undemocratic frame of mind.

    We do, after all, live off other people’s money as scientists. Whether it makes sense scientifically to have to justify our research is a different question altogether from whether we had better justify it to a public that can damned well vote for people who will choke off scientific funding.

    If, in the end, we knee-jerk lefties don’t think that all wisdom resides in the proletariat, we might want to, as an exercise in self-preservation, try to spread some appreciation of science to the extent we can. I don’t think we are ever going to have a science literacy poll test, so we’d better.

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