Is science democratic? People don’t really have a say about whether research funds go toward curing diabetes or toward elucidating how Viagra helps hamsters get over jet lag (I’m not making that up, it’s actual research). While we all can easily agree that curing and finding better treatments for asthma are laudable research goals with immediately tangible benefits to society, we can’t as easily find the value of research like “Ultrasonic Velocity in Cheddar Cheese as Affected by Temperature” (again, the title of a real research paper).

Public research funds are distributed under the assumption that the research done with that money will at some point have a tangible benefit for the public. As such, does it make sense to place the distribution of science funding in the hands of a few elite, highly specialized committees trained to evaluate grant proposals? That is how the system currently works, and it works well for the most part, with a few embarrassing exceptions.

Nonetheless, how much different would the relative distribution of science funds look if the public had a direct say upon how they were distributed? Sickle-cell anemia have been cured. Tasers may never have been invented, and that research money might have helped lead to a better cure sooner for common types of cancer. What would such a distribution reveal about society itself?

Perhaps it would be revealed that society is much more pacifistic and environmentalist than our leadership would believe. I find it difficult to imagine that society would choose to develop a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons rather than fund basic research upon more effective technology to combat global warming or smog. Likewise, we couldn’t claim to be a just and moral society if we chose to invest in research on luxury electronics without also investing in the technology to make the production of said electronics as green as possible.

The current system by which funds are distributed is also an exemplar of our representative democracy. We elect legislative representatives who in turn represent us when they appoint officials to the posts that regulate the flow of public research funds. In doing so, we vote with the implicit trust that research will eventually benefit us somehow. But how efficient is this process?

In some areas of scientific inquiry, the connection between research and beneficial technology is readily apparent and quickly adopted, sometimes with revolutionary results (Colossal Electromagnetic Resistance in your iPod, for example). Yet other fields of thought seem to rarely yield anything of benefit to humanity (such as the research directed toward determining why woodpeckers don’t get headaches). So how are we to collectively determine the relative importance of different fields?

Sure, physics has had a huge impact on the design and implementation of electronics, and biology has revolutionized Western medical practices, but when was the last time that papyrology benefited us? While it is important to have super-fast microprocessors and wireless pacemakers, how important is it to study ancient manuscripts written on papyrus? The answer to this is that we don’t exactly know, because we can never truly anticipate when some obscure science may suddenly have an impact on our lives.

To give society as a whole complete control over the distribution of research monies would be a disaster to obscure fields of thought, which in the end would leave us culturally poorer. So in the end we do accrue benefits, although they may not always be how we expect within the current convoluted oligarchic system.

This is usually true, even with papers like “Will Humans Swim Faster or Slower in Syrup?”

Alexander Honkala is an LSA senior and a cartoonist for the Daily.

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