Since they’re funded by taxpayer dollars (through the NIH, NSF, and so on), should scientists have to justify their research agendas to the public, rather than just grant-making bodies?
Uncertain Principles does a good job handling the question, and brings up the ghost of William Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece Awards” as an example of what happens when someone without a big-picture view of the scientific enterprise thinks he is a better judge of science than our peer reviewers.
I agree with just about everything he says, but I’d add that science (particularly the kind of science funded by the NSF) is a creative and serendipitous enterprise. It isn’t possible to predict discoveries or give guarantees that specific projects will work out as proposed. And most importantly, we may not know immediately how important a particular discovery is. Michael Faraday was once asked of what use was his discovery of electromagnetic induction. His response, “Of what use is a child?” is instructive. Allowing the public to vote on funding priorities or individual grants (Simon Cowell presents: “American Scientist!”) would be a recipe for disaster.