Sunday, December 12, 2010

"YouCut" Good

I'm am writing this as a member of Britain's educational elite (MA Oxon, St John's, 1988) and adopting the persona of a firm, but caring conservative in the mold of my contemporaries David Cameron (Brasneose, 1988) and Boris Johnson (Balliol, 1987). From this perspective, I think it's entirely reasonable that in these fiscally challenging time our elected representatives should ask the public to consider whether they are really getting good value for money from Federally-supported research.

To me, the issue here is one of public understanding of science. By and large, scientists have not been particularly good at explaining to the public what they are doing with all those taxpayer dollars. This becomes rapidly apparent when you begin to search the NSF database, as suggested by the YouCut program. Few of these projects feature anything like a Plain English summary of why the project is important, how it will improve people's lives, and how the money is going to be spent.

Instead, discussion of the "broader impacts" of the work are dominated by grant-speak phrases like "synergy," "cyberinfrastructure," "proactive," "leverage," and "transformational." This "verbiage" (another grant-speak term) isn't good science, nor is it even very meaningful. It's just gobbledygook. Minimally, any project worthy of public funding ought to come with an explanation, understandable to most members of the public, of why they're having to pay for it.

Many scientists will argue that their work is so complex and the U.S. public is so scientifically illiterate that such as task is impossible. To which I say "bullsh*t." Consider this explantion, one of a number that were produced by partical physicists in 1993 in response to a challege from the then U.K. Minister for Science to produce an answer that would fit on one page to the question "What is the Higgs boson, and why do we want to find it?" If you can do this for sub-atomic physics, surely one of the most abstruse branches of science, then why not biology, genetics, social sciences, or any other discipline?

"YouCut" is a challenge, but it's not an unreasonable one. Rather than protest loudly that we are under attack by a bunch of know-nothings, we should embrace the opportunity of providing better access to, and understanding of, publicly-funded research.

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