Fellow blogger Michael posted this entry recently, and rather than just write a comment, I thought I would chime in on this issue as well. I won’t try to summarize completely his relatively short blog entry, but to put it briefly, Michael reminds scientists that to solicit funding from the public or public policy-makers, scientists must engage the public and inform them of the content and benefit of their scientific work.
I think a fair amount of what Michael said applies across-the-board to any variety of scholarship, and on the whole, I very much agree with his point and support it. However, I would like to pose a question. Scientific work may suffer a lack of funding due to waning interest, familiarity, or other such motivation on the part of the public and/or policy-makers, and I would agree that there is some onus on scientists to reinvest in relations with said parties. But is it not also true that statements such as “I personally don’t see the benefit, or “understand” or “like or “appreciate” this research (or science as a whole)” are not an excuse to fail to support the endeavors of scientists that work toward the public good, be it through basic or applied science, research or education?
I agree that public relations, outreach, etc. are very important, and raising awareness of the importance of science (or any other type of scholarship) would very much help bring back much-needed public support to the policy debate regarding funding for research. I suspect improving public education would do likewise. But I don’t think efforts to gain public support should hinge on whether the public is properly educated about a specific scientific endeavor, nor on whether this endeavor has an immediate & direct impact on the public good (e.g. climate change or healthcare). Basic research science and mathematics has sometimes been described as a money-pit into which we dump millions of dollars and get no “products” or “solutions” because researching bugs or quasars or quarks or Lie groups seems to be useless. This belies the fact that the applied sciences, as well as most fields of engineering, technology, communications, etc., rely heavily on the existing and expanding body of research in basic science and mathematics.
NASA is one example of a publicly-funded institution that supports not only scientific research but also its own space-exploration program. It has been a leader in the scholarship of astronomy, engineering of many types, and scientific leadership. Now its funding has been cut because policy-makers (and perhaps the public) think space exploration is not important. And there are many reasons this is the case, among which I do count Michael’s important and very agreeable point. One role of scientists (or any researcher, publicly funded or not) is to communicate effectively the nature, role, and importance of his/her work to the general public. However, I am arguing that this should not extend so far as to require researchers to educate the public on the entirety of science, as this is impractical and infeasible.
Research is a long-term endeavor that navigates twists and turns, hinges on unknowns, and takes long spans of time. It also requires us to accept that projects may fail to produce good results, or that the results may not lead immediately to new solutions to applied problems. The same is true of funding scholarship and research — not every researcher will be successful as an “investment” in the short term, and some may leave research altogether, but we do not subject every first-year graduate student to an inquisition to determine if they will solve a world-changing real-life problem in 10 years and only fund those who demonstrate this. In aggregate, it is important to fund research (and researchers) sufficiently well without demanding guarantees of success, or an accounting of immediate gains from this investment.