Nature, 18 November 2004
Sir - Your editorial "Going Public" (Nature 431, 883; 2004) makes a persuasive case for upstream public engagement in science funding. No doubt setting up committees of non-scientists to advise the existing funding bodies is a step in the right direction. But there is also a more radical possibility, namely to set aside a small proportion of the public science budget, say 1%, for research proposed by lay people.
What questions would be of public interest? Why not ask? Organizations such as charities, schools, local authorities, trades unions, environmental groups and gardening associations could be invited to make suggestions. Within each organization, the very possibility of proposing research would probably trigger off far-ranging discussions, and would lead to a sense of involvement in many sections of the population.
To avoid the 1% fund being taken over by the science establishment, it would need to be administered by a board largely composed of non-scientists, as in many research charities. Funding would be restricted to to areas not already covered by the other 99% of the public science budget.
This system could be treated as an experiment, and tried out for, say, five years. If it had no useful effects, it could be discontinued. If it led to productive research, greater public trust in science and increased interest among students, the percentage allocated to this fund could be increased.