Archive for December 15, 2010

Science funding can’t be democratic if education isn’t

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on December 15, 2010 by telescoper

An opinion piece in New Scientist by Dan Hind (who apparently has a new book out) just caught my eye, and I couldn’t resist a quick comment.

The piece makes some good points. One is that much current science funding is actually nothing more than a direct subsidy for private industry. This troubles me. As I’ve blogged before, I think research that really is near-market shouldn’t be funded by the tax payer but by private investment by banks or venture capitalists. Publically funded science should be for speculative research that, regardless of whether it pays off commercially, is good from a cultural and intellectual perspective. I know I’m in a minority of my colleagues on this, but that’s what I think.

Where I disagree strongly with Dan Hind is the suggestion that science funding should be given

… to new bodies set up to allocate resources on the basis of a democratic vote. Scientists could apply to these bodies for funding and we could all have a say in what research is given support.

I can see that there are good intentions behind this suggestion, but in practice I think it would be a disaster. The problem is that the fraction of the general population that knows enough about science to make informed decisions about where to spend funding is just too small. That goes for the political establishment too.

If we left science funding to a democratic vote we’d be wasting vaulable taxpayer’s money on astrology, homeopathy and who knows what other kind of new age quackery. It’s true that the so-called experts get it wrong sometimes, but if left to the general public things would only get worse. I wish things were different, but this idea just wouldn’t work.

On the other hand, I don’t at all disagree with the motivation behind this suggestion. In an increasingly technologically-driven society, the gap between the few in and the many out of the know poses a grave threat to our existence as an open and inclusive democracy. The public needs to be better informed about science (as well as a great many other things). Two areas need attention.

In fields such as my own, astronomy, there’s a widespread culture of working very hard at outreach. This overarching term includes trying to get people interested in science and encouraging more kids to take it seriously at school and college, but also engaging directly with members of the public and institutions that represent them. Not all scientists take the same attitude, though, and we must try harder. Moves are being made to give more recognition to public engagement, but a drastic improvement is necessary if our aim is to make our society genuinely democratic.

But the biggest issue we have to confront is education. The quality of science education must improve, especially in state schools where pupils sometimes don’t have appropriately qualified teachers and so are unable to learn, e.g. physics, properly. The less wealthy are becoming systematically disenfranchised through their lack of access to the education they need to understand the complex issues relating to life in an advanced technological society.

If we improve school education, we may well get more graduates in STEM areas too although this government’s cuts to Higher Education make that unlikely. More science graduates would be good for many reasons, but I don’t think the greatest problem facing the UK is the lack of qualified scientists – it’s that too few ordinary citizens have even a vague understanding of what science is and how it works. They are therefore unable to participate in an informed way in discussions of some of the most important issues facing us in the 21st century.

We can’t expect everyone to be a science expert, but we do need higher levels of basic scientific literacy throughout our society. Unless this happens we will be increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by the dark forces of global capitalism via the media they control. You can see it happening already.


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