Ask A ScienceBlogger

My belated response to the question:

“Since they’re funded by taxpayer dollars (through the NIH, NSF, and so on), should scientists have to justify their research agendas to the public, rather than just grant-making bodies?

My answer will be longer than the 300 word suggested limit.


Here is an abstract from a recent paper in PNAS

It has been suggested, based on x-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) experiments on liquid water [Wernet, Ph., et al. (2004) Science 304, 995-999], that a condensed-phase water molecule’s asymmetric electron density results in only two hydrogen bonds per water molecule on average. The larger implication of the XAS interpretation is that the conventional view of liquid water being a tetrahedrally coordinated random network is now replaced by a structural organization that instead strongly favors hydrogen-bonded water chains or large rings embedded in a weakly hydrogen-bonded disordered network. This work reports that the asymmetry of the hydrogen density exhibited in the XAS experiments agrees with reported x-ray scattering structure factors and intensities for Q > 6.5 Ã…-1. However, the assumption that the asymmetry in the hydrogen electron density does not fluctuate and is persistent in all local molecular liquid water environments is inconsistent with longer-ranged tetrahedral network signatures present in experimental x-ray scattering intensity and structure factor data for Q < 6.5 Ã…-1.

Now, I will confess, I have no idea what this means, other than that it seems to have something to do with X-ray absorption spectroscopy and the structure of the water molecule. How does this research promote the common good? I do not know (other than on a generic “it advances scientific knowledge” level). So how would a scientist go about justifyng funding for this piece of research to me? It strikes me as a rather hard proposition given that I don’t know that much about chemistry.
It is something of a truism in anthrpology, that in order to have complex, stratified societies you need to have a division of labor. In other words, you spend the time necessary to learn metalurgy and I’ll spend the time necessary to learn agriculture and we will be better off (as opposed to everybody learning both agriculture and metalurgy). The same is true of science. We have left the practice of science to people who specialize in the subject and spend their lives doing nothing but science. In order for someone, like say, me, to judge the worthiness of the above research I would have to spend a lot of time learning about chemistry and water molecules and x-ray spectroscopy. By the time I finally gained enough knowledge to understand the theoretical and practical importance of the above research, I would be an expert myself. My own preference then, is to leave decisions about funding research to experts. Certainly, if scientists use public funding they should in some sense be answerable to the public. They should also be explaining their research agendas to the public, but I don’t think the justification should be made to the public rather than to funding agencies. The fact that any given individual is giving taxes to the government, in part to fund science, does not make them an expert on science. Note, the arguement can be extended to every aspect of government. My taxes fund the military, so I should have a say in military strategy (General, order a cavalry charge through Bagdad now!) and the CIA (spy on my neighbors!), etc. Right?

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3 Responses

  1. While I agree, to some extent, that researchers shouldn’t be expected to justify every detail of their research to all and sundry that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to circulate the knowledge gained only within a restricted intelligentsia. Scientific information must not be spread on a ‘need to know’ basis. If a member of the ‘general public’ wishes to spend the time acquiring the knowledge to understand a paper on the physical chemistry of water, or anything else, they should be able to read it. Furthermore the taxpayer demands that their tax dollars, euros, yens or pounds will be used as effectively as possible and for science that means it must be shared and shared as widely as possible. John and Jane Doe may not be able to understand the contents of scientific journals but they can legitimately expect that those who can make use of it will be able to do so. From that perspective, the case for publishing research in Open Access journals seems irresistible.
    [Conflict of Interest statement: I work for the Public Library of Science, an Open Access publisher]

  2. It’s obvious that most people won’t be able to grasp the finer points of intermolecular interactions in water, but the public can doesn’t need to have a detailed understanding of the research to make decisions about science policy. What the public needs to have from the research community (either mediated via the grant-makers or directly from researchers in some cases) is why the research is important (what kinds of benefits may be derived from it and where in general does it fit in the expansion of scientific knowledge) and how much it is going to cost. While the merits of individual projects are best determined by groups with the relevant expertise, those projects need to be justifiable in the context of the overall research priorities and resources provided by the political process.

  3. I absolutely agree on the open access issue. It is a logical extension of the arguement I was trying to make. I get most of my ideas from science journals and it is really frustrating so see a good article but not be able to access it. I also agree that at some point scientists should be accountable to the public for their research (and certainly lots of people can gain the necessary knowledge) I think the current system is pretty much the best (although their is always room for improvement).

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