31 December 2008

No, don’t let the public interfere with science funding

In an essay in the 20 December 2008 issue of the New Scientist, Michael Brooks suggests to give the public “more say in what science gets funded” instead of letting the process be "driven by scientists’ demands for ever more specialised efforts.” The former option is supposed to get the public more involved in science and prevent the “disappearance of science from culture".

The public has no control over how any branch of the government spends their tax dollars, so why should they have any say in what scientists want to do with it? Why single out science funding for public influence? Hey, why not give us some control over how the military spends our tax money? Is the government willing to give the public more say in how it spends their monies in all and every project it undertakes? If no, leave the control of science funding to scientists. And leave the politicians out of it too.

Brooks writes:

But that suggests people are not qualified to judge how their money should be spent. How is that different from another unthinkable: a barrister arguing that a jury cannot appreciate the subtlety of a criminal case, so the verdict should instead be brought by a carefully selected handful of the barrister's peers?
That is a stupid analogy. A jury is supposed to consist of a defendant’s "peers", presumably meaning that they are not different significantly than the defendant in those shared characteristic that may influence their judgment of him or her. An ordinary layperson with no scientific background, on the other hand, cannot be expected to pass sound judgement on a trained scientist’s scientific ideas. I don’t mean to humiliate a layperson, but this is only a matter of expertise and education. I don’t advise NASA on how to build spaceships; I don’t tell highway engineers how to build highways; I don’t even attempt to teach garbage men how to pick up garbage; because I don’t know how to do any of those things. In return, I don’t want people who think slugs are snails that have come out of their shells* telling me how to spend their tax money (not that I get any government funding).

Scientists have their own peer review system administered by other scientists. Let them be their own overseers and leave the public out of it.

*Yes, I did once meet a layperson who sincerely thought that slugs were snails that had temporarily left their shells.

1 comment:

Christopher Taylor said...

The jury analogy is especially stupid because it is not unthinkable at all. A number of countries (France and Japan come to mind) don't have trial by jury for exactly that reason - they would argue that a trained judge with experience of criminal trials is more likely to recognise what's actually going on than a bunch of untrained laypeople who may not have their bullshit detectors properly installed.