Incentivizing Public Interest Science
Scientific information is often necessary for crafting effective public policies. How can policymakers ensure that scientists undertake research that will address public concerns?
Science is neither a value-free endeavor nor a value-free product. Social and ethical values interweave themselves throughout the fabric of science, influencing the choice of the direction of research, methodological choices, inference decisions, and dissemination and application decisions.
We depend on this fabric, on the knowledge that science produces, for decisionmaking in democratic societies. Having the most accurate and robust empirical information possible to inform policy decisions is central to good governance. To ignore the empirical information that science produces would be folly. But how do policymakers ensure that they have the needed expertise on hand when advice is required? How do elected leaders shape what is studied so that the appropriate and required expertise is likely to be available when they need it?
Over the course of the twentieth century, public funding became increasingly important for supporting scientific research. And even with the worldwide rise of privately funded science again in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, across industrialized countries the public still funds at least one-third of the research pursued, and sometimes much more than that. Because publicly funded research has a uniquely important role in democratic governance, it’s necessary to understand what such science contributes to society and how we can ensure that it continues to serve the public interest.
Two kinds of research
Although private funders (particularly those in the for-profit sector) have the most capital to spend on research, they spend it in ways that primarily serve their interests. While some of this funding does serve public interests (for example, by producing desired consumer products and new jobs, thus driving societally beneficial economic growth), private research tends to be deliberately blind to public concerns in some important ways (for example, by avoiding looking too closely at the potential harms of a company’s products). In general, privately funded science is geared toward the private interests that fund it.
That there is a public interest that diverges from private interests can be seen in two general kinds of things that science can discover. The first is that science can discover important causal processes for improving our lives that are not readily patentable. As the philosopher James R. Brown has pointed out, we lack systematic and careful research into the effects of diet and exercise on our health, especially when compared with pharmaceutical research. And what nutritional research is carried out is usually funded by the food industry, looking to support narrow claims for improving specific product marketability. This is because it does not serve private interests to know, for example, whether a particular (but generic) change in exercise or diet is a more effective treatment for a disease than a particular drug. It is difficult or impossible to assert patent rights over such things and thus to increase profits with such knowledge. Yet this is precisely what the public and our medical caregivers need to know.
The second kind of research is when science discovers a public impact of private actions, especially unexpected harmful impacts of ostensibly private choices. Such discoveries can radically alter what we think of as private vs. public. One obvious example is the discovery of climate change. The awareness that burning fossil fuels impacts the entire world’s climate makes the burning of such fuels a matter of pervasive public concern, not just an issue of private interest. Earlier in the twentieth century, discoveries of the effects of air pollution on public health and the impact of sulfates and nitrates on ecosystems through acid rain similarly made previously private decisions about energy sources a matter of public concern. Another example is the discovery of the health effects of secondhand smoke, which turned a private decision to smoke cigarettes into a public issue that led to restrictions on smokers in public spaces.
To see how this works in real time, consider how quickly the issue of wearing a face mask in public space in the midst of a pandemic went from a private, individual decision to a public concern. Once it became clear that a mask protected not just oneself but others, by reducing transmission of a deadly disease in wide circulation, mask wearing became a public issue. We are still in the midst of hotly contested political debates about whether the public good of mask wearing outweighs an individual’s desire to not wear a mask in public.
Science does not always expand the realm of the public—it can contract it as well, by discovering there is no public impact for choices that were once of public concern. This has happened with the adoption of children by gay parents, once an issue of profound public concern. But as studies failed to find any adverse impact on the children, it is increasingly a purely private matter. Thus, science need not always expand the realm of government intervention. Even when it contracts it, there is still palpable social change. I suspect that science’s ability to intervene in our public discourse in this way is one of the reasons science is increasingly distrusted by social conservatives—science can shift our social map dramatically.
What these two kinds of discoveries show is that we can expect the public to need knowledge that private interests will neither fund nor pursue. It is imperative that public funding of scientific research attend to these public interest areas—the detection of causal forces on known public interests and the discovery of new public interests. However, the public purse cannot be wholly dedicated to such ends. Scientists also pursue research because they find a particular line of investigation inherently interesting, or because they think doing so will be theoretically revealing. Research for curiosity’s sake must also be a part of the public funding of science (as it is rare that private funding supports such work). Sometimes the results of this type of research will be of profound interest to the public. The history of science is replete with examples of the serendipitous discovery of publicly important findings from curiosity-driven research.
Encouraging public interest science
How do we ensure that our research funding regimes address the public’s need for these kinds of knowledge? First, it is clearly important to rely not only on private sources for funding science and not to have public funding geared primarily toward private interests. This latter problem arose in the last years of Stephen Harper’s government in Canada (he left office in 2015), when national grants to academic researchers were increasingly required to have privately secured matching funds and government laboratories were shifted to pursue private interest. Funding regimens must be robust for both public-interest and curiosity-driven science, disentangled from the enticements of private interests.
Still, researchers could primarily focus solely on what interests them, driven by internal disciplinary concerns, and ignore the public interest altogether. Indeed, incentives for more private interest science in academia—such as the US Bayh-Dole Act of 1980—were generated by the concern that much of academic science was pursued according to internal disciplinary concerns. But policies like this did not incentivize public interest science. We want to allow scientists to pursue their research where their curiosity leads in general (that sort of freedom and the diversity of agendas it produces is essential to the scientific enterprise), but we don’t want the scientific community to neglect research in the public interest. How should we manage this?
Currently, we use a range of mechanisms to encourage researchers to pursue public interest science. Funding agencies often have targeted areas that encourage capable researchers of shifting focus to specific areas of perceived need. Citizen groups (particularly patient groups) have prodded scientists to alter their research to address their concerns. Crowdfunding has become a viable way to pursue particular pieces of research, especially those that are likely to be of public interest—and this combined with interest groups can produce substantial funding (e.g., the ice-bucket challenge for ALS research). The general call for so-called responsible innovation, where research agendas are crafted in consultation with the public in particular areas, can help to shape research trajectories. And collaborative research projects, where researchers work with public groups and communities over weeks or months to generate specific knowledge needed for public decision-making, can be very powerful in producing relevant and trusted knowledge.
The difficulty is that there is no one person, or even one group, that is responsible (much less accountable) for the direction of research. Yet this is probably a good thing, because we don’t want science to be so tightly planned that there are clear lines of accountability. Currently we have a mishmash of different avenues to try to encourage a diverse and publicly interested research agenda. One wonders, though, if we could do better in promoting public-interest science instead of curiosity-driven or private-interest science.
Perhaps an oversight committee, drawn from different disciplines but geared towards the public interest, could review the range of research being funded and pursued and see if there are gaps that need to be filled. Such a committee could take comments and recommendations from the general public on whether there are areas where the public needs scientific expertise but is currently not getting it. The committee could also make recommendations to granting councils and agencies on where efforts are needed, and perhaps scientists could see if they could fulfill such needs. Such a system would not plan all of scientific research (even all publicly funded research), but it could nudge it in certain directions when needed. While it might be a good idea to pursue such a mechanism, it would be a mistake to allow it to replace the other mechanisms already in existence. This is partly because there will always be gaps and failures, and relying on just one institutional structure will lead us to think that that institution is taking care of the concern and we don’t have to worry about it anymore. Additionally, single institutions are always open to capture by special interests. Maintaining a pluralist system for public research funding is likely to be both desirable and necessary going forward.
One final point: what is clearly needed among scientists is more attention to not only the public in general but the members of the public who are the least well-off. The pervasive neglect of environmental contamination, health problems, and food insecurity among the most vulnerable in our communities is a deep problem and a source of inequality that threatens both democracy and science. Public trust in science is shaken by academic scientists’ failure to pay attention to environmental and health problems—particularly when those problems turn into a crisis. Issues of distributional justice need to be more of a central concern, particularly as we strengthen efforts in public-interest science.