Wednesday, April 1

Science Funding: Justice or Utility?

I’ve been thinking over the discussion in class yesterday and am realizing that some of the confusion over science funding may arise because of the conflation of two related issues. On the one hand, we tend to believe that the scientist should be free to investigate those things which he or she has a genuine interest in without being manipulated or censured by the government or society. This is assuming his or her research is ethical in nature and doesn’t compromise the society’s values. On the other side of the equation, is the individual tax-paying citizen, who in some degree supports science funding through their tax dollars. Again, it seems logical that like the scientist, each of these people should have the freedom to choose what things are worthy of their investment. Should they too have the right to study, vicariously through the use of their money, those things which they genuinely want to support? We would like for both the scientist and the citizen to have complete freedom of action but what happens when these freedoms oppose each other in society? That seems like the foundational question that we are asking?

As strange as it sounds at first, I kind of like Matthew’s idea of having a list of issues which citizen’s can allocate their individual taxes toward. If it is the public’s money, the public should have a large degree of say on how that money is spent. Will this crimp the speed and efficiency of scientific advancement? Yes. This system wouldn’t be as powerful or as versatile as a more “elitist” organization where the resource allocation decisions are made at higher levels. But, this is the price you pay for justice it seems. Democracies were never meant to be efficient. Does this debate boil down to a question of justice versus utility? And if it does, what is our underlying criterion for deciding how to allocate funding?


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  2. I disagree that "we would like for both the scientist and the citizen to have complete freedom of action..." Sure, absolute freedom is something we all desire, but living in a democratic society precludes this kind of unrestricted free will. I don't think this means that we have no freedom or even a greatly diminished level of freedom. In fact, I think it's an illusion that we've ever had complete freedom in any society, especially with publicly-funded science (save maybe for very early science). In a just society, we have individual freedoms to the extent that those freedoms don’t encroach upon other people’s freedoms (I think this is Rawlsian theory). Therefore, when scientists and the rest of society differ on what they’d like to do with public funding, then one or both sides must sacrifice some freedom, ideally only after careful discussion and “tutoring” (thanks Kitcher!).

    Furthermore, I'm not sure if scientific funding boils down to justice versus utility; instead, I think it's more simply a question of justice (although utility probably factors into fairness somehow). Pardon my limited background in justice theory, and correct me when I'm wrong, but I take it that when scientists apply for federal funding from the NIH or NSF, they are agreeing to a social contract. As far as I know, scientists have to present reasonable evidence that pursuing their proposed lines of research will bring about some sort of benefit to humankind. For this reason, I see publicly-funded science as an inherently social endeavor which should respect and uphold certain shared societal values. We need to break down this idea that science is some abstract entity insulated from societal pressures; scientists are citizens just like politicians, doctors, teachers, and plumbers, and they too have social obligations and responsibilities.

    I really liked Kitcher’s final chapter on “Research in an Imperfect World.” In the last pages he outlines some specific responsibilities of the scientist (thanks Rachel for discussing this on your post earlier). Unrestricted science is not well-ordered science, as we’ve seen with examples like the Human Genome Project. If well-ordered science requires scientists to give up some freedom (via publicly-funded projects) in order to realize greater social values like justice and equality, then I’m okay with that. Given the amount of human suffering local and abroad, we just can’t afford to sacrifice public money at the whim of scientific curiosity.

    P.S. Sorry I removed my earlier post; it's the same as this except I didn't like the paragraphs all squished together so I attempted to format them better here. Call me OCD.

  3. First, I feel that publicly funded science leads to a social contract between the scientist and the public. The scientist must produce results that benefit the people who give the money. Otherwise, the scientist is not doing well. That part is pretty obvious. There are also mechanisms in place to keep scientists from getting money that they do not deserve (see grant processes).

    However, grant processes do not include the public and for good reason. First, listening to everyone who wants to say something about a grant proposal would bog down the system far too much. Also, something that is against the ‘social norm’ may be denied simply because it is against the norm--think Galileo or more-recently those against evolution. Quite frankly, the thought of the public having absolute power over scientific funding is quite scary. If that were the case, the process of getting funding will come to who can “ooooh and awwww” the public the most. We would probably end up with the Oxi-Clean (or Sham-wow if you’re a fan) guy trying to sell crap like electric pants. Disregarding comical potential that is a process I would not want to be a part of.

    So freedom of inquiry is something that we should keep. If you disagree, think of it this way: compare science funding to education. Those that pay taxes pay for the education of others and that education does not work in every case—measured by high-school drop-out rates or some other statistic. Schools that fail to meet certain standards are subject to penalties as are scientists that do not perform well. Both endeavors provide benefits that may or may not be foreseeable in the short-term—no one can really predict the good (or bad) someone will do 20 years they graduate high school. However, as with schools, there needs to be regulations and standards. Still, though, the standards and regulations are not made by the public—they are made by committees that have experience with the matter. The same thing should go for science and any other publically-funded endeavor.

  4. I have a hard time accepting the “idea of having a list of issues which citizens can allocate their individual taxes toward.” As Dave begins to note, there is a large concern about individuals of the public who are ignorant and uneducated impacting the lines of inquiry scientists wish to pursue. If such a system were put into place, what is to stop such an individual from putting their money towards something like “electric pants” because it sounds cool? Also, there is the concern that corporations and organizations would try and persuade individuals (whether ignorant or not) to allocating their money towards specific projects.
    However, I do not think that the public can be disregarded, and agree that there must be a discussion about how to include the public in decisions made about potential inquires that not only regard the public’s money, but also have a potential to impact the public. Yet, I think that this type of discussion must first occur among scientists, thus allowing for more open and critically discourse among them and then involving the public—make the scientists learn how to listen other perspectives. For, what is the point of incorporating more features, when there is already a problem with current features?


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