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Sunday, January 09, 2011

Science: Balancing curiosity with accountability

Peter Aldhous, chief of New Scientist's San Francisco bureau, highlights the importance, in a time of recession, of scientists explaining the value of their work, as opposed to heaping abuse on the Tea Party:
Speaking the language of fiscal accountability will be crucial, and here many scientists have a good story to tell. Encouragingly, the researcher whose "questionable" work was highlighted in launching the YouCut Citizen Review has shown the way. Luís Amaral of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, was targeted because of a paper analysing the performance of soccer players. However, this project was a spin-off from a NSF-funded study of ways to make scientific research more efficient. Amaral estimates that it consumed no more than a few hundred federal dollars, and he points out that it provided a great hook to get sports-mad teens interested in data analysis.

Most importantly, Amaral has corrected the record with humility, stating on his blog: "I am a strong believer in accountability. I strongly believe that scientists must balance their intellectual curiosity with the costs to society of embarking on a given research direction."
Of course, most people are curious about the world around us. But deciding which projects to fund is a sure way to be somebody’s villain - so most decision-makers and lobbyists just shrug off abuse.


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