Fair’s fair

What questions would the public choose to invest scientific time and resources in, if given the chance to shape research policy? This is an old and largely unanswered question. Indeed, it is one that many members of the scientific community go out of their way to avoid testing.

Ben Goldacre touched on it a couple of weeks ago, in his Bad Science column, where he repeated an idea that’s been around for a while – that each year, a very small proportion of the research budget should be spent on whatever the public vote for. Goldacre mentioned this idea because he wanted to argue that at least some of the money would go on useful research. Still he was also fast to quip that ‘Most of it would go on MMR and homeopathy, of course’.

But we don’t really know what the public would fund. That’s the beauty of the experiment: we’d give ourselves a chance to find out.

We’d also give publicly funded science a chance to enrich its scope of inspiration, and make itself more clearly accountable to the communities which fund it. Researchers often say they should be to be left to research what is “interesting” without public, or at least political, interference (see about any reference to the Haldane Principle…). Ok. But we need to appreciate that any idea of “interesting” is socially constructed. I don’t say that to undermine the point necessarily. We’ve put 100s of years of effort into constructing a world of science which trains people to have a keen sense of “interesting”. But I see it as an ongoing process, open to development and, potentially, open to input from a broader social network.

I was thinking about this issue while at the Google Science Fair last week, in particular the broad range of sources of inspriation the finalists and drawn upon, and have a post about it on the Guardian Science blog. There, I suggest children sit in a sort of mid-way space between science and ‘the public’, and that this is is something we might try to replicate in at least some parts of grown up science:

It is perhaps best to think of schoolchildren as holding a liminal position with respect to science and the rest of society. They are not quite inside the scientific community or squarely outside it either. They are both science and “the public”, and they are neither of these things […] what can we do to further this sort of liminality in grownup science? How can we extend the social spheres of our professional scientists, especially those who define the research agenda, so they might draw inspiration more effectively from the diversity of publics that fund them?

When thinking about the question of how the public might shape research policy, I think this sense of liminality is key. To me, this is better than a straight public vote, which just seems a bit blunt. I much prefer a model of co-production which aims towards mutual learning between science and the public so they can build something better than either alone would be able to dream up.

Afterall, a question that on first glance looks like a call to homeopathy or MMR might well contain a nugget of a more scientifically credible challenge for public health, if only given a bit of discussion to help bring that point out.

18 thoughts on “Fair’s fair

  1. Hilary Sutcliffe

    I agree Alice that some sort of co-production is better, I like your phrase to ‘build something better than either alone would be able to dream up’. I do hope that ‘the public’ here is not limited to lay input. I would also like to see ngos, consumer groups, businesses, scientists of all types get stuck into this debate and raise their own perspectives for the debate to be truly rich and representative. But I think perhaps it would not be a great use of public money in these straightened times.

    I also think that actually the public won’t call for homeopathy and MMR, pretty much always when asked a rationale thoughtful question the public en masse come up with a rationale thoughtful answer. I would expect health and climate change mitigation to come up top as they so often do.

    1. alice Post author

      To be fair on Goldacre, I think he was joking. But I agree, in the absense of knowing, my best guess is that homeopathy would be low priority too.

      I guess there’s balance to be made between groups like NGOs etc getting stuck in to make sure people know their point of view, and special interests groups skewing the social construction of these things… (as hinted below)

  2. ehauke

    I recently did a vox pop asking people to what area of science they would donate an imaginary £10 – nearly everyone said some version of energy science/climate change/reducing energy consumption/renewable energy. I was surprised at the consistency – we were targeting all ages and social groups. Younger people more often voted for nuclear science, but otherwise it was remarkably consistent.

  3. Chris Lintott

    The difficulty here, of course, is creating a system that can’t be gamed (or at least is more difficult to game than the average online poll). Any attempt to allow a straight vote would be, I sadly suspect, dominated by well-organized lobbies, whether that be amateur astronomers* or the alternative medicine crowd. One option is to introduce a cost for voting thus making it harder for people to outshout others – at the dot astronomy meeting in Oxford a few months ago we talked about crowdfunding a summer research project (which was the smallest unit of research we could think of), allowing funders to help shape the research question to be addressed. I’d still like to try that someday…

    1. alice Post author

      Yes, I agree about the problem of gaming the system – it’s one of the reasons why I think something a bit more discursive is better than a straight ‘public vote’. Every now and again I here people talking about popularising research funding in terms of music reality telly, and I think it’s a really inappropriate application of a model…

      1. Chris Lintott

        It’s too crude a model, certainly. But what’s out there? There was the Radio 4 ‘So you want to be a scientist’ which was in some ways collaborative, but was a long way from involving the public in funding decisions.

        I think there’s a distinction to be made between suggestions aimed at increasing public enthusiasm for and knowledge of science (for which a BBC Great Britons/X-factor hybrid might work) and suggestions aiming at trying to give the public a real influence in funding, which is much harder.

        1. alice Post author

          Yes, I nearly mentioned ‘So you want to be a scientist’ in the post. I really liked that project.

          There is also the way the Research Councils have lay members of peer review committees – this could be extended, with greater public accountability (or simply readibility) built into application process.

          I don’t think a single model will work alone though.

  4. Tom Whyntie

    The public shouldn’t tell scientists what they should find interesting (through a vote or otherwise), in the same way scientists shouldn’t just tell the public what’s right and wrong. But yes — it would be great if (more?) mechanisms existed for enabling the public to try and *convince* scientists that a given subject is interesting…

    1. alice Post author

      I never said the public should ‘tell’ scientists anything – that’s a large part of the point about stressing conversations.

      But one might well argue that publicly funded scientists have a duty to listen to what the public finds interesting.

      Equally, why is it the public’s job to convince scientists what’s interesting, why can’t it be the other way around?

      1. Tom Whyntie

        I believe that I, as someone who is funded to do research by the tax payer, have a duty to convince those people (or their children) that the research I’m doing is of interest to them as well as me. I try to do this buy giving public talks and school talks when I can.

        I agree with you 100% that there should be a discussion about what’s interesting to different people, and everyone can learn from such discussions. But the “voting” idea that Goldacre repeated and that you mention your post is a bit one-way for my liking ;-)

          1. Tom Whyntie

            No, I feel I have a duty to listen, discuss and be prepared to be convinced that there are other interesting things out there. I live for the question sessions; if I get good, challenging ones I know I’ve done something right. But what I don’t accept is the argument that I should find x interesting because y has paid for it. That’s not very convincing :-)

          2. Tom Whyntie

            By the way, I have read this now (thank you for the link, via Google+):


            To hammer home the point, if you drop “public” and “scientists”, the issues being discussed here reduce down to how we get “specific” people convincing other “specific” people that stuff they themselves find interesting should be of interest to them too. To give a concrete example (that you have used many times before, with good reason) the “I’m a Scientist” project achieves this phenomenally well — I don’t know if this is because the students feel that they’re empowered by the voting mechanism, or that the “scientists” are simply surprised by the quality and the depth of the questions — even if it is arguably premised on the deficit model (i.e. the students are asking questions to the expert scientists). But I’d pretty confident in saying that the questions the scientists find interesting are the most frequently asked questions.

  5. MWNT

    It is good to aware the public about the researches. That will be more beneficial that more good inventions could be done as the peoples admires them. And know them.


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