Can public funding panels properly represent the interests of the public?


The public funds a large number of projects in the arts, humanities and sciences. How this funding is distributed is decided by a small group of people who given the power to make a decision on behalf of the population at large.

Generally speaking, the existence of this funding is justified by the projects being for the public good, whether this is in terms of economic or cultural value, the populations wellbeing, or something else.

It seems that the power to make decisions about who gets this money is granted by the people in a very indirect way, elected representatives choose bodies, which then use a rather complex system of panels to make decisions. Whilst things like economic value might be addressable in a fairly objective way, decisions about scientific merit or cultural value are much more tricky. It seems that such things can only be judged by experts, for example, we wouldn't give scientific papers to some random person and expect them to make a good decision.

But a panel of experts is always going do differ in their mode of valuing to non-experts. An arts panel can always be accused of snobbery, and a scientific panel valuing useless things of interest only to an insular community.

How can such a panel ever escape such a criticism and be considered to legitimately represent the interests of the population? If considering values other than economic value is necessary for this problem to exist, perhaps the less-than-preferable option of using economic value exclusively is the only way to be properly representative?

This is a refinement of this question.


Posted 2014-05-09T17:37:49.667

Reputation: 1 731

1Political patronage is an ancient form of corruption. You take the public's money and hand it out to a small number of well-connected insiders. The only real question is why the public puts up with it. Bread and circuses, right? – user4894 – 2014-05-09T17:49:52.887

@user4894 But is it unavoidable? Does trying to avoid it (say for example, by restricting the basis upon which panels make judgements to quantifiable economic terms) make things worse? – Lucas – 2014-05-09T17:53:55.757

1@user4894 the reason the public puts up with its possibility in the case of government funding, is because generally it enables things that are good that would otherwise be impossible. – Lucas – 2014-05-09T18:03:28.233

Some of your statements seem to imply that assessments of "economic value" are objective and unambiguous; for sufficiently complex problems this is not the case. In reference to your final question, reducing a multi-faceted assessment (by an expert panel) down to a single-featured, economic, assessment may simply be counter to the interests of the public (I'm assuming that the public has non-economic interests). – Dave – 2014-05-09T20:34:11.707

@Dave I certainly didn't mean to imply that. More that it is more a tangible to more people, and that it doesn't require the same kind of insularity that science judged by scientists may suggest. – Lucas – 2014-05-09T20:36:19.750



What is wrong with counting only economic value? The error would be to assume that economic value is synonymous with what you can get people or corporations to pay for. There are many areas where there is great value but because of structure or timescale you can't get adequate (or any) payment--preserving a common resource or advanced education for all are two examples. For instance, quite a few Asian countries have targeted science and technology education as an engine for economic growth (Singapore, South Korea, Japan, China, etc.). Funding for public arts tends to increase the livability of places, attract better workers, etc., though I don't think this is as carefully studied.

If you allow long-term economic impact and indirect effects, it's not so clear to me that these things are not: legitimately in the public good, measurably so, and thus poor decisions can be detected and those making them can be removed if necessary.

There may be other ways around the problem, but are they needed?

Rex Kerr

Posted 2014-05-09T17:37:49.667

Reputation: 15 388


Ok, I think I have a better bead on what you're asking now.

Let's distinguish two things: how to act responsibly in the public's interest with the public's money, and how to avoid the perception of snobbishness, or insularity. The former is an ethical question, the latter is a PR question.

I think the ethical question is the important one. The way you get elected to one of these important gatekeeper positions is by being an eminent figure in your field with outstanding talent and a lifetime of important, significant work that is highly valued by your colleagues. Further, you are going to have to have a reputation for fair-mindedness and good judgment. You pretty much have to be such a person to be prominent enough to be asked to help decide who will receive public funds for scholarship or the arts. Basically at this level the standards would be the same as for editing a journal or evaluating grant proposals or refereeing articles. You pick the best work.

I think this is legitimate--what is required to exercise this function is an incredibly high level of expertise, something that is necessarily rare. There simply aren't going to be reliable external mechanisms that laypeople can use to determine whether you are using your expertise correctly or not--otherwise the decision wouldn't have required expertise in the first place. In other words, the public is putting its faith in you to be honest and use your expertise on their behalf to make judgments they aren't capable of and there's nothing keeping you from screwing up except your own integrity. This is why a reputation for uprightness is important.

So my answer to this question is the same as to the previous one: what makes it legitimate is that there isn't really any meaningful alternative. The upshot is that your question makes very clear the importance of "non-academic" factors like honesty and integrity for the public perception of scientific and intellectual endeavors.

I hope this helps.


Posted 2014-05-09T17:37:49.667


I generally agree. What about the option of reduction to economic terms for which there is a lessened need for the panel to be experts in that particular topic, is it not a meaningful alternative, even if you don't think it's the right choice? – Lucas – 2014-05-09T19:14:58.417

You're still going to have judgment calls there too--is this research really likely to pay off and have the economic benefits that the people are claiming in the application. The potential economic benefits of discovering cold fusion are huge--but that doesn't mean that it's likely to happen soon, or that we should automatically fund such projects. The decision whether or not to do so needs to be made by those with expertise in the field who can accurately access the likelihood of success. There are no magic bullets to replace sound judgment. – None – 2014-05-09T19:18:59.837

Of course. But in the economic case, at lest they are judging on a basis that everyone has some understanding of. The only question is how well are they making these judgements, not should they be making them in the first place. – Lucas – 2014-05-09T19:43:41.453