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This week, ScienceBloggers tackled the question of how much control the public ought to have over the scientific research that its tax dollars pay for. The question was phrased like so:

“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?”

And the answers? Well, the answers depend on what you mean by “justify.”

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Most of the ScienceBloggers claim that letting the public vote directly on which specific projects will or won’t receive funding would be a recipe for disaster, mainly because even understanding much of the research that is proposed requires years of specialized education. Nevertheless, reply many of the bloggers, scientists should make every attempt to explain to the public what they’re doing and why it matters. Communication, not justification, is the thing to work towards.

Here’s a brief guided tour of the replies:

“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!, says Razib at Gene Expression:

    “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.”

  • NO!, says PZ Myers at Pharyngula:

    “They don’t have to justify, but they should explain. “

  • YES!, says Kevin Vranes at No Se Nada, though he wouldn’t go so far as to advocate for a popular vote on which projects get funded:

    “After studying science policy in much more depth for the past few years and working in the sausage factory, I have a new view: it’s the public’s money!”

  • NO!, say Dave and Greta Munger at Cognitive Daily:

    ” Why do you think researchers spend nine-plus years studying their specialties?”

    BUT, they add, some reforms would be nice:

    “I’d prefer to see all publicly funded research distributed on the model of the Public Library of Science.”

  • NO!, says John Lynch at Stranger Fruit. But that doesn’t mean the public should be exploited, either:

    “Public funds should not be used to generate profit (through research outcomes that become patented) for biomedical corporations that then charge the public an arm and a leg.”

  • NO!, says GrrlScientist at Living the Scientific Life. At least, no more than they have to already:

    “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.”

  • NO!, says Afarensis:

    “It is something of a truism in anthrpology, that in order to have complex, stratified societies you need to have a division of labor…The fact that any given individual is giving taxes to the government, in part to fund science, does not make them an expert on science.”

  • NOT ESPECIALLY!, says RPM at Evolgen:

    “I think it’s more important for us to explain our research to the public rather than justify our grants.”

  • NO!, says Dr Free-Ride at Adventures in Ethics and Science:

    “Like discerning diners at a fine restaurant, can they taste the wine and then send it back?”

    But, she adds:

    “It’s not that the public ought to tell scientists exactly what to do with tax dollars. Rather, the public should have access to the details, and the scientists should be forthcoming with information…”

  • NO! (“with caveats”), says Tara Smith at Aetiology:

    “[I]t’s difficult at times to see the benefit in some types of basic research. Indeed, many in the public scoff at some of these seemingly inane research experiments.”

  • YES AND NO, says Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles:

    “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.'”

    However,

    “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.”

  • NO!, says Orac:

    Besides,

    “In any case, we as scientists already do have to justify our existence to the public, only not directly. Instead we do it through intermediaries, specifically our elected officials.”

    This week, the nays have it.

    Past Ask A ScienceBlogger round-ups can be found here, here, and here.

    And don’t forget to email your own Ask A ScienceBlogger questions to askablogger@seedmediagroup.com.

Comments

  1. #1 apalazzo
    June 1, 2006

    I agree with all the answers, they are quite similar to what I wrote. However the knee-jerk response of most Sciencebloggers was to answer the question narrowly (please don’t vote on my own grant) instead of broadly (the public should approve that experts choose how funds for science are allocated) is worrisome.

    We in the scientific community have to reach out to the public and include them in every attempt possible. By reflexively answering the question narrowly we promote the image of the intellect living in his ivory tower separated from the rest of society. Without general support for the current system, which I believe there is, academia can only rely on lobbying to maintain the current status of federal funding for science. I would much prefer relying on the public’s support.

  2. #2 petersuber
    June 1, 2006

    Most science bloggers answering this week’s question are sticking to the subject. But I’ve seen at least one who has confused it with the question whether the government ought to offer open access (public access, free online access) to the results of publicly-funded research. I’ve corrected the error on the blog where I saw the mistake, but also wanted to make the point in this central location. Open access gives taxpayers access to the research for which they have paid, so they needn’t pay twice to see it. It doesn’t give them a veto over what is funded.

    For more background, see my Open Access Overview,
    http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/overview.htm

    Peter

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