This week’s “Ask a Science Blogger” is:
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?
This question is loaded because how you interpret it really colors how you respond. I would say, no, the public doesn’t really understand any specific science, just as physicists and biologists (or biochemists and population geneticists) don’t really understand the particulars of other fields. Unfortunately, science is the domain of specialists, even across and within disciplines. This isn’t a good thing, but I don’t have a magic potion to cure it, so until we find a better solution peers are the only judge we have of quality of work besides reality. If the public had a direct input I’m afraid astrophysists would be submitting proposals to “know the mind of god” and biologists would start picking model organisms based on how cute they were (though they might pussyfoot around with what they’d have to do to those organisms), and god knows how many doctors would want to study the effect of prayer on mortality (seriously, if only a small % of grant applications get approved, would no one take the low road if popular vote counted?).
As it is, the public does have a voice via intermediaries. There is a reason that clinically oriented research gets so much money, and the military also funds a lot of science. In the end, science does have checks and balances, but it is just too esoteric of a practice to expect popular input to do anything besides distort it even further from the ideal of objective investigation. There is already a lot of politics in science, this would just exacerbate the situation.
Addendum: A compromise might be to have two pools of of granting agencies. And a researcher who accepted funds from one pool could only accept funds from that pool for a set amount of time before applying to the other pool. Over a decade we might be able to figure out if elite vs. non-elite funding was different in the quality of research produced (I assume a mix of popular/public participation and scientists themselves). If there was no difference then Vox Populi, Vox Dei! say I.
Postscript: I count representatives of the people in a legislature as direct popular participation.