I have frequently criticized the conceit in science that only scientists should determine what is and what isn’t ethical in science, a conceit that is the science sector’s equivalent of clericalism. Now, apparently THE SCIENTISTS think that scientists should also have the full say on what the public funds.
Nature has an editorial lambasting a bill that would prevent using science public funding to support political science, which isn’t really science in the way that biology and physics are, but as a social science, sounds more in the humanities. (Yes, I know that is a matter of dispute, so let’s not discuss that now.) That leads to the real point. From the editorial:
The idea that politicians should decide what is worthy of research is perilous. The proper function of democracy is to establish impartial bodies of experts and leave it to them. But Flake’s amendment does more than just disparage a culture of expertise. The research he selected for ridicule included studies of gender disparity in politics and models for international analysis of climate change — issues that are unpopular with right-wingers. In other words, his interference is not just about cost-cutting: it has a political agenda. The fact that he and his political allies seem to feel threatened by evidence-based studies of politics and society does not speak highly of their confidence in the objective case for their policies. Flake’s amendment is no different in principle to the ideological infringements of academic freedom in Turkey or Iran. It has nothing to do with democracy.
It’s totalitarian for elected politicians to control what is spent on science? To the contrary: Democracy is incompatible with technocracy. Moreover, one could very persuasively argue that THE SCIENTISTS have their own ideological agendas with which many of the people who fund them profoundly disagree.
Yes, of course expert panels should administer the difficult job of separating wheat from chaffe with regard to grant applications. But that point aside, the people’s representatives should have the final say over how the people’s money is spent, not THE SCIENTISTS. For example, each year Congress passes the Dickey/Wicker Amendment that outlaws federal funding of creating embryos for research or from using taxpayer dollars to destroy embryos in research, which at the moment, is the only thing preventing federally funded human cloning. I mean, is there any question that THE SCIENTISTS would fund that research?
Dickey/Wicker is a splendid example of the propriety of political oversight over public funding. Refusing to spend the public’s dime on what so very many outside of science see as unethical research is a perfectly proper judgment for the people’s representatives to make. Under Nature’s view, Congress has no place passing such a law: Just give the THE SCIENTISTS a blank check, tell them how much is in the account, and let them spend the money as they decide.
Not gonna happen! If scientists don’t like it, they don’t have to apply for public funding.
HT: The Corner