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

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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12 Responses to “Science funding can’t be democratic if education isn’t”

  1. I wonder if the gap in scientific literacy mirrors the increasing disparity between rich and poor?

  2. Someone in America has suggested getting voters to look through where the NSF puts its money. Doug Natelson wrote about it and said similar things about the general public being able to judge what to fund.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, I’ll probably be accused of elitism (again) but in case I am let me just say that I long for the day when we live in a genuine participatory democracy. My point is that we’re still a very long way from that.

  3. Mr Physicist Says:

    I agree strongly that the problem is with education – but not just science education, all education. Many of the pressures on the university system are now caused by the “one size fits all” idea that everyone has to have a university degree…. whatever their chosen career. This has led to the belief that we are all becoming better educated, but where is the proof? Its the quality of education that counts – not the quantity. Improving primary and secondary education for the UK needs to be a priority and we should forget the numbers game.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Richard Lubbock, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: Science funding can't be democratic if education isn't: http://wp.me/pko9D-2c0 […]

  5. I think Dan Hind has somewhat missed the point of our democracy. We elect people (in principle) on the basis that they are capable of making the correct decisions, having the expertise that we do not.

    Things like referendums (on entering the Euro, or on what research scientists should be funded for) are things that undermine democracy, not enhance it.

    • telescoper Says:

      Brendan

      I don’t entirely agree. The problem I see with our “democracy” is that the elected representatives basically represent the interests of big business, not ordinary people, and when they’re not representing big business their just lining their own pockets at our expense.

      I agree that we need a representative government, but that should be much smaller and with new technology there’s much more opportunity for people to get involved directly in decision-making. Perhaps then we can get rid of the umpteen layers of politicians that cost so much and achieve so little and people will feel less alienated from the political process.

      Peter

    • I don’t think we elect people on the grounds they are capable of making the correct decisions! In my experience its more like we have a choice between three people, none of whom we really want to be elected, but just try to pick the least bad choice to minimise the damage they can cause.

    • Peter, Mark,

      I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written. But what you said is more a comment that the political process has become incredibly corrupted than a disagreement with the ideal I expressed.

      It’s a tragedy our system is failing so badly, and the only saving grace is that it has not failed quite as badly here (yet) as it has in other parts of the world.

  6. Peter,

    I wouldn’t be so certain that your view that near-market research should be funded by private investment is not widely supported. It might be interesting to see the results of a straw poll on this…

    What’s the core economic rationale for state support of university research? It’s that fundamental research is a public good – a non-excludable, non-rivalrous good (in the language of an economist) – and therefore there is a market failure associated with funding that good.

    But if the research is effectively near-term R&D (with a strong emphasis on the “D”) then why shouldn’t the “market” fund it? There is no market failure in that case. Indeed, with the ever-increasing focus on IPR, patenting, and licencing (driven both by RCUK and HEFCE and, of course, the univerisities themselves) then the research is no longer non-excludable and non-rivalrous. Therefore, there is no justification for a state subsidy and what remains is, in essence, corporate welfare in many cases.

    I’m not an economist – I’m just a lowly “squalid state” physicist. If there’s someone out there with a better understanding of economics, could you explain any flaws in the logic above? Thanks!

    And as regards the ability of the public to judge research proposals? Most physicists are not qualified to review the proposals of other physicists! (I regularly return proposals and papers that are outside my area of expertise.)

    Philip

  7. P.S. I had a debate with Robert Doubleday, a sociologist at Cambridge, a couple of years back entitled “Should the direction of research be democratised?” (Rob makes a somewhat similar argument to Hind).

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