science is not democratic

Cpp_avatar William Proxmire was something of a hero in my Wisconsin family, where my father at one time had aspirations to becoming a professional politican.  Unfortunately, the thing he is most remembered for is the one thing my family had significant reservations about.  The 'Golden Fleece' awards made perfect sense in the abstract: identifying places the government was wasting taxpayer money, and even better if you can make it seem terribly frivolous.  The execution of the idea, however, often failed due to an arrogance, if you will, in believing that anyone can look at the title or summary of a scientific grant or paper and decide whether it is 'worthy'. 

Proxmire's mantle has been taken up many times over the years, most recently by Representative Adrian Smith of Nebraska.  Smith – a member of the House Science and Technology Committee – has a featured spot on soon-to-be-majority whip Eric Cantor's "YouCut" website.  If you've only read about it, you really should check out Smith's video for yourself.

It's the Golden Fleece awards on the Internet.  Smith's target of choice is the National Science Foundation: the government organization that funds the vast majority of the most basic research done in this country.  The distinction that Smith makes in his video between 'hard science' and 'waste' is  interesting.  He's not suggesting that NSF is overall a waste of money.  He even cites the 'almost 150 Nobel Prizes' won by NSF awardees.  Going after NSF makes perfect sense because NSF requires awardees to submit a project summary that contains one paragraph explicitly designed for "the public".  It is ironic that NSF's laudable desire to be clear with the public ends up working against it.

The instructions Smith gives for finding wasteful grants are simple.  After going to the NSF website…

In the "Search Award For" field, try some keywords, such as: success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus, etc. to bring up grants. If you find a grant that you believe is a waste of your taxdollars, be sure to record the award number.

You then submit the award number to the website and hopefully someone will do a better job of investigating the grant content than did the people who picked out the two examples Smith cites in his motivational video.  Dan Vergano compares Smith's view of that research with the reality in USA Today.  I won't re-hash Vergano's excellent article, but suffice it to say that understanding something really is a pre-requisite to juding it.  Smith's examples are actually quite valid research with potential implications for making the world a better place.  I've been reading a lot about how the precepts involved in video gaming are being shown to have potential for improving student learning of math and science.  I can't wait to see what the 'Citizen Googlers' do with those grants.  Proxmire may have identified some actual waste, but he also was forced to admit that, in his zeal for a good press release lede, he mis-tagged work that actually had significant ramifications for agriculture, industry, human health, or just plain improving our understanding of the universe.

We (the scientific community) have spent a lot of effort trying to make science attractive.  We've been promoting the heck out of the idea of 'science for all'.  We've tried to make science look cool by showing that rock stars like it, cheerleaders cheer for it, blowing things up on television in the name of science, and generally trying to make scientists into celebrities.  In short, we've been marketing science just like any other product we want the world to buy. 

I'm beginning to wonder whether we are doing ourselves a disservice with this approach.  Science is in some ways like sports.  Anyone can understand the basics, the same way anyone can appreciate the laws of baseball.  But becoming a real athlete requires determination, hard work, training and dedication.  Not coincidentally, so does being a scientist. 

The average sports fan doesn't think twice about expressing an opinion as to why his favorite team isn't doing well, which coaches should be fired and what players ought to be traded.  That seems to be the way science is headed as well.  Maybe that's a good thing if it means people really care.  But is it a good idea for a football coach to base his decisions on fan opinion?

In the 11 December issue of New Scientist, Dan Hind suggests that since taxpayer money funds a large amount of research, taxpayers ought to have some input into how that money is allocated.  Hind argues that the track record in other areas of science is disappointing.  He says that economics, for example, has "become a servant of the finanical sector", and quotes Philip Augar in saying that "it is little wonder that so much academic research was supportive of the financial system".  Apparently the economists didn't warn us about the trouble we were headed for because they were in thrall to the existing system.

Hind goes on to suggest that state-funded science "has also tended to drive the whole thrust of the economy in directions that favour powerful elites".  He cites the development of copycat drugs and "treatments for depression and anxiety that have few clear benefits".  Witness how much money goes to diseases like AIDS that have celebrity spokespersons compared to the funding that goes into less popular diseases.  Hind, however, doesn't argue that the 'elite' are determined in large part by the adulation of the populus.  He does argue that scientists "for the most part find themselves working for the military-industrial bureaucracy" and that much of science is an 'arm's length subsidiary of the Department of Defense'. 

It is true that many of us do work in areas relevant to big industry and to the military industrial complex.  The Department of Defense is one of the ultimate 'early adopters'.  Their willingness to pay for expensive product produced in low quantities is what makes development, improvement and the efficiencies of scale possible.  But the DoD also is among the most interested organizations in funding energy efficiency improvements — just because they use so doggone much of it. 

Hind's suggestion is that some — and he does stress "some" — of the money that subsidizes private industry should be given to a body that would allocate the funding according to democratic vote. Hind is not targeting basic science funding, but he doesn't explain exactly what money he is talking about.  Much of the science funding that goes to private industry from the government goes to start-up businesses.  Much of the money going to larger businesses is for commericalization of proven technologies.  I'm not clear exactly what pots of money he is suggesting we use.

Let's accept the existence of those pots of money for the sake of argument.  Hind suggests that if a system like the one he is proposing had been in place, those few economists that predicted the crash we are now experiencing would have had more access to publicity, and that public concern about the environment could be focused into more alternative energy research.

This seems to me to be a type of policy naivete.  The 'failures' that Hind mentions as his motivation for moving toward more public input in science funding aren't a reflection of a system that doesn't work.  They are a reflection of the fact that science is hard and sometimes it doesn't work.  That's not a failure of the system.

My concern over Adrian Smith's project and Dan Hinds' idea is that they both are based on the fundamentally incorrect belief that everyone's opinions should carry equal weight.  If I found I had cancer, I wouldn't ask my research colleagues (all very smart people) for their recommendations.  I'd ask a doctor.  I'd specifically ask an oncologist.  A general oncologist's opinions would rank slightly lower than those of an oncologist who specializes in the type of cancer I had.  I don't do my own dentistry or serve as my own literary agent, either.  It's not because I'm too important or I don't have time:  It's because I'm not qualified to do it myself and I defer to people whose opinions I value. 

The founding fathers believed that people of a certain class had a responsibility to become educated and participate in law, government, medicine, etc.  They saw that responsibility as being a birthright of the landed white male gentry; however, the essence of their idea holds water.  An opinion does not have an a priori value.  It acquires value because of the qualifications of the person putting it forward. 

Science should be open to anyone who wants to make the effort to understand it and how it works.  But asking people to do a blind search on a handful of terms and then make a determination as to the 'value' of the research is absurd. Does Dan Hind really think that the average person who was enjoying living in a house they couldn't actually afford and watching their property values soar would have seen a need to fund the small fraction of economists who were warning the bubble was near burst stage?  Or that the outcome of democratic science is going to be anything other than people advocating for research money to spent in areas that have touched them personally?

A lot of the press on this issue has emphasized that this is exactly why scientists need to be clear about the 'Broader Impacts' of their research and strive to make their work understandable to non-specialists.  But just as it is unfair to hold teachers entirely accountable for the progress of their students, it is not solely the scientists' responsibility to make the importance and relevance of their work clear to the public.

While we strive to make it accessible and understandable, we need to not lose sight of the fact that science is not democratic. 

11 thoughts on “science is not democratic”

  1. Interesting article, thanks Diandra. I agree that Hind’s suggestions are naive – can you imagine? There could be a science shopping channel where science salespeople are pitching science 24/7 on cable with the number of the granting project flashing across the bottom of the screen ‘call now and vote to fund this project’ ! But why stop with science? I’d like to vote on military spending and research too! The DOD spends more money researching new weapons technologies than the NSF funds science so let’s democratize the DOD (even just some of it)!!! We have the technology to democratize EVERY expenditure – start up a GOOGLE VOTE alert and every time an issue of interest comes up, I can vote on it. We can eliminate the house and the senate. We have the technology to remove representative government. Why don’t we? Can you imagine????

  2. Hey Diandra! So funny to see you mention Proxmire and his “Golden Fleece” awards–my father worked for the Senator for 30 years and was in fact responsible for the name “Golden Fleece” (check out page 3 of Prox’s book, “The Fleecing of America.”) I had to drive Prox home from National Airport one time and scared the crap out of him!
    One thing Proxmire had in spades, something that his self-styled heirs sorely lack, was integrity. Here is a man who gave a speech on the floor of the US Senate every day it was in session–every day–as long as the United States failed to ratify the genocide treaty. (Yes, my dad wrote a lot of those too.) Proxmire was a politician, to be sure, but he was nothing if not sincere in his desire to save the taxpayer money, and not to blindly run up the deficit and attendant national debt by avoiding tough decisions. My father worked for years on the Senate Appropriations Committee staff, helping to fund thins like NASA, HHS, NSF, etc. I’m fairly confident that were he in office today, Proxmire would not be attempting to demonize science and would be focusing on the large, structural problems (tax policy, entitlement spending, military spending) that are saddling us with all this debt. These imposters strike me as either hypocritical or ignorant–or both–attempting to score cheap political points while doing nothing of any real value, and indeed taking funding away from those who are.
    And if you ever feel like talking NASCAR again, let me know. We miss your insight!

  3. Not that the “science is too important for people to mess with” is a popular slogan, but science is about reaching out for new borders. You just don´t know what lies beyond, and somebody´s no-practical-application discovery is somebody else´s business line, or lifesaver, or economic-downturn-buster. And there´s wrong bad about scientists trying to become rock stars. America is a place where cult to the hero rules. If some of them can jump into people´s TV sets and open people´s minds to a bright, fascinating new world, so much the better for us all. Hey, Mr. Sagan, we still miss you!
    As for the Golden Fleece Awards, some of them are perfect examples of why science should NOT be driven by public vote or popularity: attempts to contact intelligence elsewhere in the Universe; a system that predated Google Street View by 30 years; a package to teach chidren how to use (wisely, I guess) TV … I´m so glad this man was not born in XV Century Spain:
    “Let´s see this new applicant … some Chris Columbus, claiming he can get to India and obtain spices, gold and new souls for Christendom. What the heck! We´ve just finished that damn war in Granada, moorish terrorists, ahem, infidels are on the loose in Northern Africa, the king of France is breaking into Italian territory, and this Italian guy wants to boldly travel to where no European has gone before? He´d better put his expertise to better use, like driving pirates off our coast, instead of wasting government funds trying to find new lands nobody ever heard of!”
    And yes, I´m a Spaniard (from Granada!) and only too happy that Italian guy went over to your homeland and made us the big cheese for the following 150 years.

  4. The study on modeling of sounds will most likely also be used, in a “reverse engineering” sense, to develop computer models for RECOGNITION of specific sounds. Security agencies will certainly find a use for that. Just one more example of the point made in this excellent article, that you have to understand something in order to criticise it intelligently.

  5. Speaking of rock stars, Hinds would be better off taking those pots of money and running a “Science Idol” competition on national TV. Each competitor could try to sell their grant proposal, including “behind the scenes” interviews with lab members (at least, the young and attractive ones), shots of fancy high-tech equipment, and pie-in-the-sky benefits to society (we’ll all have jetpacks tomorrow, folks!). There could be a panel of “judges” (not sure whether it would be better to have Nobel laureates or actual rock stars) but the awards would be based on text messages by the American People sitting at home. If they managed to make it glitzy enough, they’d probably get better voter turnout than your average off-year election. And the rest of the scientific establishment could go on its merry peer-reviewed way.

  6. Good article. I do think the move to opening access to government funded data is, on balance, good. I don’t think we should react to poorly informed criticism by blocking accessing (not that you’ve proposed that), but simply ignoring it (and yes this opens a whole can of existential questions about democracy).
    One statement I would take issue with: “[opinions acquire] value because of the qualifications of the person putting it forward.” There is some merit in this, people can take qualifications as a shorthand to identifying who are the people who know a lot about a topic. In contrast, Feynmann defined science as “the absence of experts.” Opinions should acquire value because they are well-supported. If someone is highly qualified, they ought to be able to explain why their opinion on an issue holds merit.
    In your oncologist example, you should use qualifications to quickly identify who may be the best informed about an issue. But no matter how specialized, an oncologist who based their medical advice solely on their qualifications (or “gut feelings”) is a liability if they refuse to correct their views when good science finds new results. If you’re oncologist couldn’t explain what evidence is behind their decisions you ought to be afraid.

  7. The example of the economic science community at large failing to see the crash coming is an interesting choice, because it doesn’t seem to support Hind’s ideas. I personally don’t have a big problem with the notion that economics’ embrace of neo-con ideology is a failure of the system. But does Hind really believe that putting economic science research up to a vote will remedy this? After neo-cons won the most recent elections?

  8. I’ll play the devil’s advocate here, which means I’ll be a little exaggerated. You are using MY MONEY – MY MONEY to do things. Get it? Science for good or ill is funded almost totally by taxes in the US. It is institutionalized today such that I have about zero input into how those government dollars are spent. I might even support more taxes for science but as long as this type of funding is the norm, I understand the feeling of annoyance.
    Now these (R) folks even pay lip service to current structures, but what if someone came along as a libertarian and said – let us zero out the entire NSF?
    I don’t think people in science realize how good they have it from a historical perspective. We are still in the golden age of professional science. I for one don’t think it will be here in this country much longer. Especially if the ivory tower gets built higher to keep out the riffraff’s opinions on how to spend taxes. Scientists take their money and spend it on trips to conferences in exotic places to whine about how the little people don’t understand their money problems.
    Guess what? I bet most people if given a vote would let experts decide what to do with their money anyway … yes some part would be wasted but so what? I can see the whole institutional structure falling down in a few years or a decade when things get really bad if institutional science doesn’t seem immediately relevant to people.
    By the way, I shook hands and talked with with Proxmire many times – he was at the state fair every year outside greeting everyone who came by. He is not like the current Republicans at all – just the opposite – he thought you could have efficient government and tried to create it, whereas these folks do not seem to believe efficient government is possible.


    Markk: It is a fine line we have to tread. The arrogance of ‘hey, who are you to tell me, brilliant scientist, what to do?’ isn’t appropriate either. And I just spent a week at a conference sponsored primarily by the government, with my attendance paid by the government in a very fancy hotel in the DC area where we talked about the energy crisis and then went for drinks in an 11-floor atrium that had to cost a lot of heat.
    The solution is that we have got to fix the education system. We have got to produce people capable of thinking independently, basing their decisions on facts and not which celebrity supports a cause, or which pundit shouts more loudly. In an information technology world, the absolute last thing we should be doing is encouraging kids to memorize things they can Google in microseconds. We need to teach critical thinking and leave room for how people factor in their personal contexts (religion or lack thereof) to decisions that affect many other people.
    Your last comment reminds me of one of the last outings I had with my Dad before he became sick and ultimately passed away. Herb Kohl was running for senate for the first time. It was amazingly hot for Milwaukee – I remember beer getting warm before you could finish it, which doesn’t happen easily in Milwaukee. Nonetheless, all the candidates were at the state fair. My Dad announced that he would be voting for Kohl – which shocked us all. His rationale: Of all the places to stand at the Fair, Kohl picked the Rose Judging Pavilion: the one place on the entire fairground that was air conditioned at the time. Dad told us that sometimes, it was more important that you pick a person who demonstrates that he is a person of sound judgment so that he will choose the right side when an unknown question arises. Thank you for reminding me of one of the last really good memories of my Dad.

  10. A very interesting article. It seems like I’ve seen this issue of science funding in a lot of places. After having watched the video, I have to agree to feeling a little irked when taxpayers money go to “waste”, but I do realize the value in funding science. I clearly remember how in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos he explained how research done by scientists about Venus’ atmosphere was later used to help fix the ozone (or something along those lines). I also remember that the reason I went into engineering rather than the sciences was because I didn’t just want to know why something worked or happens. I wanted to be able to use that phenomenon to help people. I understand that certain research topics may not be motivated by application to society and that these can’t be identified as “wasteful” right off the bat (like the Venus example), but I would expect from scientists who do these kinds of research to value every penny of their funding. Weirdly enough, this article reminded me of a previous post on Cocktail Party Physics of how Einstein (and another person) worked to design a better refrigerator. It was nice that a man who worked in theoretical physics (which I think generally doesn’t have immediate benefits) also showed concern for such simple issues that people face (at least that was how I saw it).

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