Research Funding & Public Image

William Tivol tivol at
Wed Jul 12 16:54:34 EST 1995

alex taylor (ataylor at wrote:

: >> reports of the highlights of our work for the commissioner.  These have to be
: >> in "barpersons'" terms, and the relevance of the work to public health must
: >> be emphasized.  The relevance to health or to what-
: >> ever socially beneficial area is appropriate is a key to making these sum-
: >> maries work.  Not only must MP's or legislators understand what we do, they

: The assumption here is 1) that the work has immediate, obvious relevance

	Not necessarily, long-term relevance is OK.  E.g. the development of
electron diffraction crystallography as a structure-determining technique will
probably result in the development of new drugs--but not till next century.
This long-term aspect will often be accepted by the public and the legislators.

: that directed or strategic research is an advisable use of public money,
: or even possible

	I am not advocating directed research, only research which can be rela-
ted to something the public cares about.  The success of "A Brief History of
Time" shows that the public's concerns go beyond the practical, and Hawking
could undoubtedly sell the concept to the legislators as well as he has to the
general public.

 3) it is indeed possible for a laymen to understand
: the work in a meaningful way -- once it has been boiled down
: into colloquial terminology.

	One of Feynman's greatest abilities was in describing his work to the
layman.  My guess is that he could have described QED to a bright 3-year-old.

: 	I also note that politicians and bureaucrats tend to believe whatever
: hypothesis is most convenient to them at the time, regardless of what their
: scientific advisors tell them.

	Some surely do.  Others do not.  Since we cannot do anything about the
former, we should concentrate on the latter, so there will at least be some
discussion before the convenient hypothesis is set in concrete.

: Therefore I am not sure that a
: laymens' abstract would really make any difference to public policy in
: any event, or that it would prevent further cuts to science funding. An
: example that leaps to mind is the rather unsubtle escapism
: which governments and corporations have indulged in with respect to a
: number of serious environmental and health problems. 

	The layman's abstracts will not work miracles, but they can make a
difference (perhaps very small).  I have continually been pleasantly surprized
at the public's reasonableness on scientific issues.  The example of Cambridge,
MA and DNA research springs to mind.  In spite of the inflamatory retoric on
all sides, the town decided to allow the research under the NIH guidelines--a
reasonable decision.  There will always be the possibility of further cuts to
funding in any field--science is no exception.  I completely agree about the
blindness and denial which many corporations and governments exhibit.  The 
only antidote is information.  This may not change their behaviors, but an in-
formed public can always choose to vote for governments who behave otherwise.
				Bill Tivol

More information about the Bioforum mailing list