- Time to democratise science
By Dan Hind
Anyway, given this troublesome bias allegedly caused by funding sources Hind concludes
"[I]t is surely time to consider an alternative. If we are serious about science as a public good, we should give the public control over the ways in which some - and I stress "some" - of its money is spent.
I propose taking a portion of the money that subsidises private industry and giving it 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."
Well, a lot of science funding comes from the national science foundations. And their agenda is set by national politics for control of which we go and cast our vote on election day. That this didn't prevent the issue with economics research demonstrates there's shortcomings in the academic system which spoil objectivity other than bribery. So much about Hind's motivation for his argument.
Leaving aside the shaky reasoning, I am afraid then that what Hind means with "democratic vote" is not a representative democracy. If his "alternative" is supposed to be something new, he must be talking about a grassroots democracy; the wisdom of the masses and all. That interpretation of his proposition of "democratisation" also goes well with him being the author of a book called The Return of the Public that according to the blurb "outlines a way forwards for a new participatory politics." But back to the New Scientist article, Hind explains the benefits of letting the public decide on research funding by referendum:
"Think what such a system could achieve. With public support, the few economists that predicted the financial crash could have gained greater access to publicity as well as more research resources. Public concern with environmental degradation could guide much-needed funds into alternative energy research."
I have no clue why that should be. In fact, I suspect a public "voting" on what scientific research projects deserve funding would make matters significantly worse rather than better. The main reason is that it would set incentives for researchers to produce results the public wants to hear rather than rely on their own sense of what is important. Hind continues:
"There is no good reason I can see why science funding could not be made subject to democratic decision-making. Yes, it will hand power to non-experts, but so does the present system: non-experts in the state and private sector often have a decisive say in what scientists study."
The present system does give non-experts the power to set general guidelines, but the details are left to experts. And that is, imho, good as it is. The problem with the academic system is definitely not that "the taxpayer" has too little say in what researcher's study but rather that the system itself suffers from internal problems. I've written on that many times and don't want to repeat the details here. For more check e.g. my posts Science and Democracy III and We have only ourselves to judge each other. The title of the latter says it all: The only people who can plausibly have an informed opinion on what research projects are worth pursuing are working in the field themselves. The problem with the academic system is, in short, that their opinions are unfortunately influenced by all sorts of external pressures which has the result that the grants are not efficiently used. The cure isn't to replace expert's judgement with that of uninformed people, but to make sure the judgement is unbiased.
In contrast to Hind, I can see several good reasons why science funding should not be made subject to public vote, except for setting the general agenda by assigning funds to the respective agencies and their programs. The reasons are the same reasons why pretty much all democracies on the planet are representative democracies. First, the public opinion changes from one day to the next. That's no basis on which one can pursue research. Second, the public opinion is easily influenced by those who have enough money to spend on media relations and search engine optimization. This works completely against Hind's own argument that the problem is the influence of wealthy people and cooperations.
The third and most important point is that the very reason academic research is mostly funded as a public good rather than through individual investments is that despite its recognized relevance for the well-being and progress of our societies it's such a long-term investment that very few people would privately invest money in it. Asking them to then decide on where the money they wouldn't individually invest should be spent, one has zero reason to believe that the money would be well spent.
(A fourth reason why the public opinion may not be suitable to call upon directly for decision making is that it may be inconsistent, but that's not a relevant point here. For more on that see my post The Nature of Laws.)
Hind explains his opinion:
"Certainly the public will sometimes support research that seems fanciful to informed insiders. We won't always spend our money wisely. But the opportunity to exercise power is a great educator. The successes and failures of democratically funded science would promote a much more vigorous public debate about the purpose of research."
The big problem is that it may take decades or even centuries to figure out what a success or a failure is. The feedback loop in this education is way too long to be effective; it's not something that will lead to an optimization. That's the reason such a lot of research is pursued as public service to begin with.
Let me be very clear here. I write this as a taxpayer myself that I am not qualified to make certain judgements. I preferably delegate my voice to somebody who has the time and makes the effort to obtain and survey all the relevant information on some decision rather than making a sloppy and uninformed decision myself because, after all, I have a job. In other words, I believe representative democracies are a good system (though there's no doubt they could use some improvements). There is place in our societies for direct public votes and we have tools for exactly this purpose. The funding of research projects just clearly isn't one of them.