The UK government ploughs £4.6 billion a year into science and research programmes. Currently, decisions about how this money is spent are left largely up to the scientific community themselves, with the government determining how much of the budget is allocated to different sectors of science. Government funds are apportioned to 7 research councils, and panels of experts from the council examine all requests for funding in detail before awarding grants – a process called peer review. The principle that scientific experts are the best positioned to decide which projects deserve cash – the so called ‘Haldane principle’ – has been at the cornerstone of scientific policy for decades. However, the peer review process often happens behind closed doors, with little discussion with the public about how funding should be directed. In recent times, with many controversial scientific breakthroughs hitting the headlines, there are increasing calls for the public to be more involved in the decision making process. So, how much say should the public have in what science is conducted using their hard-earned taxpayer pounds? And how is public engagement with science changing?
If you were in charge of the science budget, how would you spread your cash? Maybe you would choose to focus on tackling the ‘big’ killers, like cancer and heart disease. Maybe you would decide that the sensible option was to invest the money into fields such as synthetic biology, where development of new technologies is likely to give a substantial financial return. Maybe you would spread your money more thinly, funding the many small labs that carry more basic, less newsworthy experiments. These are all worthy causes and, as such, decisions about spending will impact many lives. Due to the importance of getting such decisions right, there are some legitimate reasons for scientists to be worried about the public participating in science policy and funding decisions. Some of the arguments against involving the general public are:
1/ Many of the projects proposed are complicated, and scientists are often bad at explaining why their work is so important in simple terms. It could well be that it takes a specialist to understand grant proposals in the necessary depth to make an informed decision about which projects are well thought out, and which are a waste of time.
2/ Certain projects are naturally more ‘media-friendly’ than others. If public opinion is allowed to shape science, there is an inherent danger that this opinion will be influenced by the media, rather than by informed, well-balanced decision making. The media, whilst having lots of good point, does occasionally mess up (see the MMR jab), and does occasionally like to create a scandal around science where it sees potential for controversy. A good example is the recent fuss over using a different mitochondrial parent during IVF, in which the papers screamed about ‘three parent babies’. It would be incredibly dangerous for science if progress were slowed because well thought-out projects were damned by the media, and so by the public, before they even began. This was seen in the US, where vital stem cell research ground to a halt for years due to the strength of public (and, it has to be said, governmental) disapproval.
3/ Back to the media again. Once in a while, it turns out that not all newspaper moguls/editors are fine, upstanding members of the community. They are open to corruption just like anyone else in a position of authority. If the public was allowed to make influential decisions regarding science, we would run the risk that the media would be swayed to promote the causes of big pharma, damaging the independent nature of the current process, which is often fondly (if naively) thought of as corruption-free.
4/ The panda factor. Currently, cute endangered animals get much more attention and funding than their ugly, but equally rare counterparts. People care about fluffy, huggy animals, but not so much about toads. Would the same instinct naturally apply to other funding decisions? For example, could we end up funding more biology-based projects, with obvious goals and benefits, at the expense of complicated, decidedly un-cute physics?
How many of these objections to public involvement are valid and how many are now antiquated is up for debate. Nevertheless, to date it has been apparent that the science community is wary of making any changes whatsoever to its much-loved peer review process. However, it is now accepted that decisions about what science is funded with taxpayer pounds can’t be made behind closed doors. It’s also clear that if scientists can build a better relationship with the general public, by learning to communicate their plans and results clearly, many of the worries listed above would be null and void.
To that end, funding bodies such as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) are now spending a good deal of money on public engagement. The BBSRC aims to engage the public in multiple ways, including initiating consultations about the impact of the science they fund, generating public debate about potentially controversial topics like stem cells or synthetic biology, and setting up an advisory panel to discuss the impact on society of proposals being considered by the BBSRC. The funding body also now requires that all requests for funding come with an explanation which a non-scientist can understand. These are small but important steps towards public engagement. However, they are not without their problems. Even the head of public engagement at the BBSCRC, Patrick Middleton, has admitted that it can be hard to get people involved in their outreach programmes. Meanwhile, groups such as Genewatch continue to campaign for their members to be allowed to have more say in directing science policy.
For now at least, the general public continue to have little real say in how the taxpayer-funded science budget is distributed. However, there are other ways that anyone with an interest in science can help get new experiments off the ground. In the economic downturn, with science funding decreasing in real terms in the UK, scientists have had to become more inventive in sourcing the money to get their experiments off the ground and are turning to the general public for help.
Crowdfunding has been around for several years, but the science community has been somewhat slow on the uptake. The early crowdfunding sites, such as Pledgie and even Kickstarter were not, after all, specialised in scientific proposals – no peer review process was available, meaning that would-be scientists using these websites needed no real scientific credentials. Proposals such as glow in the dark trees, one of which would be sent to every funder upon completion (something I talked about before), exemplify why a lack of regulation is dangerous. The proposal was ill-thought through and unlikely to be achievable. Once the project was funded, Kickstarter had to impose a ban on shipping any plants to the public, to stay in line with general policies in the US. However, the science community has finally realised that this type of funding venture can work for them too, and specialist science crowdfunding sites are now springing up. For example, Sciflies is a science-specific site that is supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an NGO that, amongst other projects, publishes one of the top rated scientific journals in the world, Science. The AAAS has put in place a panel of scientific experts to review each project before it is posted on the website, meaning that the public can be fairly sure that the thinking behind the proposal is sound. Such websites are a great way for the scientific community to find small sums of money to get projects off the ground, and a great way to ensure that the public are involved in and passionate about a project.
Those with a desire to make a more direct contribution to the scientific breakthroughs that they care about can find lots to interest them online. Cell Slider is a great project in which volunteers check patient tissue samples for cancerous cells, to help scientists analyse data from drug trials. If Astronomy is more your bag, at Galaxyzoo you can help scientists who are trying to understand how galaxies form. For now, you might not be able to decide if your favourite topic gets the funding it deserves, but you can almost certainly give it a helping hand along the way.