This week’s question from our Corporate Masters has to do with the ever-popular issue of funding:

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” is an awfully strong word, here…

The answer to this question is “yes and no,” because there are a couple of ways to take this. If you mean “should individual scientists be required to justify their specific research activities to the general public?” then the answer is a clear “no.” But if you take it more broadly as “should scientists in general be required to justify the general activity of Science to the general public?” then the answer is a lightly qualified “yes.”

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The idea of individual scientists justifying their individual research is just too subject to abuse to be a good one. As the famous “Golden Fleece” awards of the late Senator Proxmire demonstrated, it’s all too easy for even good science to be made to look ridiculous by and to people who don’t understand the context of the work. Science is a complicated and highly contingent business, with lots of projects that sound faintly absurd but are actually essential to the larger enterprise. It’s unreasonable to expect the general public to understand the details of any specific project– decisions on what projects “deserve” to be funded should be left to scientists and scientific organizations, who have the technical knowledge to place a given project in its proper context.

On the other hand, science in general is a tremendously expensive business, and highly dependent on public funding. (OK, OK, the entire NSF budget is a tiny fraction of the money spent on our Middle East misadventures, but it’s still a large amount of money in absolute terms…) I think it is essential for the general enterprise of capital-S Science to be justified to the public– people need to know that this is money that’s being well spent.

I don’t think this sort of “justification” should take the form of PowerPoint presentations extolling the wonderful technologies that have been spun off from our pursuit of basic science, though. For one thing, I don’t think it’s a particularly good strategy to tie funding to the ability to generate commercial products (this is part of my problem with the high energy physics community), because those products aren’t the primary aim of the science. If you make technology your primary justification, you run the risk of having your whole funding rationale undercut if you fail to generate sufficiently spiffy spin-offs.

And, more fundamentally, that’s just not why we do basic science. The technological results are a nice bonus, but we do science because we want to know more about the world and how it works. That desire for knowledge is one of the defining characteristics of our species, and the pursuit of knowledge is one of the most fundamentally human of activities. Spiffy gadgets are just gravy.

The way to justify this is to ensure that the general public has some basic appreciation for science in general. This requires a broad and basic education in the basic principles and practices of science, starting at a very low level. To really ensure science’s proper place in the order of things requires more than the occasional news story and glossy brochure. It requires a much broader outreach to the public, and a support for science education at all levels. The real work of justifying science funding isn’t done through staged presentations on Capitol Hill, it’s done through show-and-tell tricks in grade schools, and public outreach events at observatories and museums. And in popular magazines and even occasionally blog posts.

The best way to justify funding for science is to ensure that, from a very early age, people are presented with a clear and accurate picture of what science is, and what scientists do. If the general public had a better understanding of and appreciation for science as a human endeavor, we wouldn’t have to sweat the NSF budget quite as much as we do now.


  1. #1 Michael
    May 31, 2006

    Frankly, I don’t think that “trust us, we’re scientists” strategy will fly in today’s environment. I believe it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that any recipient of public funds should be willing and able to justify why spending money on a particular idea or project is a good investment for society. IMHO the fact that some scientists can’t communicate the value of their work to the public should be seen as a shortcoming that needs to be addressed rather than a reason to cop out. The “opposition” – the antiscientists, the ID types, however you think of them – are doing a really good job marketing their ideas to the public. If scientists can’t articulate their own message this country could see a major cultural change, and that’s a frightening thought.

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    May 31, 2006
    $5.47 billion, National Science Foundation 2005 budget
    $6.898 billion, Head Start 2005 budget

    Even the Department of Education cannot fabricate anything tangible having accrued from 41 years of Head Start. Has the NSF produced anything of value since 18 May 1965? Don’t spew crap about “justifying” funding of hard science research.
    “The two audits found that up to 900,000 of the 2.5 million applicants who received aid under FEMA’s emergency cash assistance program — which included the $2,000 debit cards given to evacuees — were based on duplicate or invalid Social Security numbers, or false addresses and names.”

    Fraud, incompetence; 1295 modular homes, 24,967 temporary homes, 114,341 trailers… The 2000 U.S. census put New Orleans’ population at 484,674. Go ahead, justify that quotient.

  3. #3 llewelly
    May 31, 2006

    Science is a complicated and highly contingent business, with lots of projects that sound faintly absurd but are actually essential to the larger enterprise.

    My favorite example of this is the studies trying to determine the contribution of cow flatulence to global warming.

  4. #4 Joy
    June 3, 2006

    I completely agree with your post. I don’t think the common public can be expected to understand the implications and advantages of complicated science, as it usually is with NSF funded research.

    I can see asking for public input backfiring, and the scientists getting very aggitated about the new policy.

    So, I think as you do, that the decision making capacity of science funding should stay with those who actually understand the science.

    I guess I think of it more as a democracy chosen by the people, but people not having a direct input into decision making..