Scientists as a special interest

In the context of discussing the status of science in the federal budget, Matt Nisbet asks: “as a matter of social responsibility, do scientists have an obligation to accept that reductions in scientific spending are necessary to preserve social programs?”

Nisbet’s question relates to discussions we’ve previously had on this blog.  As hopeless as it may sound, I think that we’re all wasting our time.  I suspect that there are very few (if any) circumstances under which scientists will accept that less funding serves the common good.  (Needless to say, I sometimes find myself engaged in these acts of futility.)  And as I’ve indicated before, I’m not sure that scientists are necessarily wrong in their actions.

Any group that receives public dollars or favors must lobby.  And lobbying, which inevitably brings with it distortions and exaggerations, can simply be a pejorative synonym for what some would call civic activism.  In this vein, you may even argue that the continuous drumbeat for more money helps fulfill our social obligations.  After all, some interpretations of politics insist that democracy works only when groups organize and fight for their interests.  At least in the short run, more money serves scientists’ interests.  It is a bit unreasonable to think we act otherwise.

I’m starting to believe that Nisbet and others (myself included!) take the wrong approach.  Scientists will never, ever, ever support funding cuts, and will always resist attempts at greater oversight.  In this regard we are are no different than teachers, police officers, or big oil.  So rather than trying to change how scientists interact with the public, it might be more fruitful to change how the public thinks of scientists.  As distasteful as I find it, perhaps the better approach is to try convince the public that on one level scientists are identical to teachers unions, police officer unions, and Exxon Mobil.


  1. I think you are right about this. Scientists engage in advocacy for their research all of the time, because they do believe that it is for the public good (and because they need a job). The danger is when we afford scientists moral authority.

    Another interesting point that Nisbet brought up was the democratization of scientific funding. It’s pretty obvious to me that advocacy from health-related advocacy groups have led to drastically increased funding in the NIH relative to the NSF. Making the funding process more transparent/democratic will likely lead to more of the same.

    1. Thanks for the comment Marci. I hadn’t thought that democratization of funding at NSF may lead to more of it. Although I think NIH has an easier job because at first glance their work does have more direct relevance.

      Thanks again, and do check in from time to time.

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