Over at Seed Magazine, the corporate overlords of ScienceBlogs, the cool kids on the block have been asked this provocative question:
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.
It would lead to thich grant proposal with the science and actual work obscured as much as possible, while the public side of the proposal is fluffy mush to garner votes.
I think most grant funding agencies require a ‘lay person’ summary these days, precisely for this reason. For example, the Australian Research Council require a short paragraph in non-technical jargon that the public may read. Click on any of the pdfs here to see examples.
This is probably as much as can be expected?
It can be hard to find direct sources of government grants, let alone a source that would actually consider your appplication. Recently I found a few websites that lay it all out for you, all the sources, websites and telephone numbers you need to apply to numerous agencies that offer any type of grants. I also found a great resource that takes you by the hand and tells you how to write the perfect grant application. You can check it out here: