Dear President Bush,
I believe that if 1 percent of science funding went to research that was of real interest to taxpayers, science would literally become more popular.
At present the distribution of funds for research depends on the priorities within the scientific establishment, and on the agendas of corporations and government bureaucracies. The administration of science is neither democratically accountable, nor carried out in a democratic spirit.
My proposal is that 99 per cent of the research funds continue to be allocated in the usual way. But I suggest that 1 per cent is spent in a way that reflects the curiosity of lay people, who pay for all publicly funded research through taxes. It would be necessary to create a separate funding body. One possible name would be the National Discovery Center.
What questions capable of being answered by scientific research are in fact of interest to the electorate? The simplest way to find out would be to ask for suggestions. Some would come from individuals, through the Center's Web site. Some would come from local groups, like sports clubs and horticultural associations; from national societies like the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club; from voluntary organizations like Narcotics Anonymous; from consumer protection organizations; and from local governments, schools, churches and trades unions. Potential subjects for research could be discussed in newspapers and magazines, and on radio and television. To find out in more detail what subject areas are of significant public concern, market research and opinion polls would probably be helpful.
The Center would be governed by a Board representing a wide range of interests, including non-governmental organizations, schools and voluntary associations. The Center would publish a list of the research areas in which grants were available, and would invite applications that would be evaluated on the basis of expert advice. This Center would only fund research that is not already covered by the regular science budget, and would therefore open up new areas of scientific enquiry.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), established by the US Congress in 1998, sets a precedent. Complementary and alternative medicine are of great interest to millions of American tax-payers, and the basis of a multi-billion dollar industry. But before NCCAM's predecessor, the Office of Alternative Medicine, was set up by Congress in 1992, research in these fields was receiving practically no support through established grant-giving agencies. NCCAM's current annual budget is about $100 million (less than 0.5 percent of the total budget of the NIH).
Diverting 1 percent of the present science budget to the National Discovery Center, open to democratic input and public participation, would involve no additional expenditure, but would have a big effect on people's involvement in science and on innovation. It would appeal to many voters, make science more attractive to young people, stimulate interest in scientific thinking and hypothesis-testing, and help break down the increasing alienation many people feel from science. It would also enable many working scientists to think more freely, and unleash some of the creative potential that is currently being stifled.
Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D.
Author of Seven Experiments That Could Change The World and Dogs that Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals.