Taxpayers underwrite many public services, including the funding of science. So it is entirely right for them to question funding decisions. If they do, granting agencies should have mechanisms for responding in ways that are informed but not patronizing.
On 18 September, the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) announced nine grants, most of which aimed to bridge the gap between science and the humanities. The majority were uncontroversial. Nobody blinked, for example, at the £1.95 million (US$3.1 million) given to Colin Blakemore of the Institute of Philosophy in London for a project entitled ‘Rethinking the Senses: Uniting the Philosophy and Neuroscience of Perception’. No eyebrow was raised when Randolph Donahue at the University of Bradford got £1.98 million to study ‘Fragmented Heritage: From the kilometre to the nanometre: Automated 3D Technology to Revolutionise Landscape, Site and Artefact Analyses’.
But when Mark Maltby at Bournemouth University was awarded £1.94 million for ‘Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human–Chicken Interactions’, the reaction from some tabloid newspapers was predictable. “A birdbrained idea? Outrage as academics are handed £2m to study how humans interact with CHICKENS,” crowed The Daily Mail. “Chicken study costing £1.9million of taxpayers’ funds causes a flap,” squawked The Daily Express.
Why the outrage? Could it be that journalists came across the AHRC press release, recognized the word ‘chicken’ in the morass of science-speak and went for an easy sell — lambasting the indulgence of barmy boffinry with taxpayers’ money at a time of austerity? Why ‘easy’? Well, whereas not many people know much about neuroscience or nanometres, everyone knows what chickens are. So much so that they feel they can take interactions with the birds for granted, and ask what more we would learn by spending almost £2 million on the subject. It is in that familiarity, however, that the questions lie. We know surprisingly little about the history of human–chicken relations, such as how chickens first came to Britain.
Behind the over-excited headlines lies a legitimate question about accountability. If it is right and proper for researchers, rather than politicians, to decide how public funds should be spent (the ‘Haldane principle’), then those researchers should be ready to justify such decisions, promptly and simply. For example, after Greger Larson of Durham University appeared on radio and television this year to talk about his work on the domestication of dogs, he received an e-mail that demanded, bluntly, whether the £1 million being spent on such a subject came from the taxpayer. Larson replied with a polite, informative and, most importantly, personal e-mail explaining where the money came from — and how it fitted into the context of UK government funding.
The denigration of science by media outlets and some politicians relies on an us-against-them mentality. This can be weakened by individual personal engagement such as Larson’s. Many corporations are breaking down barriers by interacting with customers through social media such as Twitter and Facebook, replying to comments much faster than they would through more conventional, formal channels. Customers appreciate the speed of service and the fact that it can be personalized, and come to feel more engaged with that corporation’s aims.
Research bodies have not been slow to use such media. The AHRC, for example, has a Twitter feed (@ahrcpress), as does the Natural Environment Research Council, which funded Larson (@NERCscience). It is only a matter of time before taxpayers communicate routinely with researchers using such methods. Informal networks will help the public to become more engaged with the work that their money funds — demonstrating the value, if you like, of human–human interactions.
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