How can non-scientists influence the course of scientific research? | Cath Ennis

Science communication should be more than the dissemination of results to the public; it should also flow in the other direction, with members of the public able to communicate their priorities to scientists and those who fund them. But how?

A researcher in biosafety protective gear

Scientists don’t conduct their research in isolation from society – at least, not all scientists, all of the time. Photograph: US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease

Scientific research has an enormous impact on modern society, with its effects felt in many aspects of our lives. But scientists are also part of that society, and can adapt their research topics and methods to reflect its ever-changing priorities. All too often, though, these priorities are dictated by governments or by the private sector, while the views of members of the public aren’t heard. However, it’s certainly possible for interested individuals to influence the course of scientific research.

Follow the (grant) money

Science is a constant cycle of applying for grants to generate data to publish in manuscripts that form the basis of the next grant application. Success rates vary enormously depending on the country and the field, among other factors, but are generally low – 10-20% wouldn’t be at all unusual. As such, the agencies that allocate research funding have more influence over trends in scientific research than any other entity. They can set aside funds for research in specific fields; they can favour one kind of research over others (eg basic versus applied research); they can favour certain methods, or types of research institution; they can decide to rank grant applications on criteria other than the quality of the scientific question and approach.

On the latter point, there’s a trend toward making funded scientists more accountable to society. For example, Genome Canada and its regional affiliates require all grant applicants to complete a lengthy section describing how their proposed project encompasses research on “genomics and its related ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social aspects” (GE3LS); the reviewers’ scores for this section can make or break an application’s success. In the US, applicants to the National Science Foundation (NSF) have to complete a “Broader Impacts” section that’s judged on criteria that include the investigator’s plan for “improved STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] education and educator development at any level; increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology; improved well-being of individuals in society”. Other funding agencies have similar criteria.

(Should scientists be thinking about and doing these things anyway? Yes, of course, and many do – but many don’t, due to lack of time, resources, training, and/or interest, and some won’t ever consider these ideas unless their funding depends on it).

So how can individuals communicate their opinions and priorities to funding agencies?

A lot of support for scientific research (most or even all of it, in some fields) comes from national and local governments and is taxpayer-funded. Major players include the seven Research Councils in the UK; the Tri-Council Agencies in Canada; and the National Institutes of Health Research and National Science Foundation in the US. If you have an opinion about the research types, topics, or methods your government should be funding, or about the need for funded scientists to demonstrate commitment to public outreach or any of the factors encompassed by E3LS research, you can direct it (in order of decreasing likelihood of impact) to your science minister or equivalent, local representative, or prime minister/president.

If you think your opinion will be shared by many others, some governments have websites where you can create a petition. The government is obliged to issue some kind of response (even if it’s an official “thanks, but no thanks”) to petitions with a certain number of signatures (currently 100,000 in both the UK and the US).

Non-government sources of research funding include private sector companies and charitable organisations. No one outside the companies in question is likely to have any chance of influencing the former, but the latter – mostly medical research charities that focus on a specific disorder or group of disorders – do listen to donors. Some allow donations to be directed towards specific topics or types of research; others can be persuaded by direct communications from donors.

Some funding agencies also directly involve members of the public in grant review – for example, the government-funded UK NHS National Institute for Health Research and Canadian Institutes of Health Research recruit lay or community reviewers, as do many charities. A lay reviewer’s opinion on the importance of the proposed research is unlikely to make or break an applicant’s success (although this is certainly possible), but their broader feedback to the funders may have more of an effect, especially for smaller organisations.


The crowdfunding model exemplified by Kickstarter, in which investors can browse business and creative pitches and contribute money to help develop a new product or service, is starting to gain some traction in the research community (see articles in the journal Nature from January 2012 and May 2013). Sites specific to scientific research, including Petridish and Microryza, have sprung up, and host requests for funding from investigators in a variety of fields, from all over the world. Donors may be offered incentives such as early access to research findings, or direct participation in the research.

I don’t believe crowdfunding will be an eventual replacement for current sources of research monies – government and charitable funding, and (most importantly) peer review, should and will remain an essential component of scientific research. Besides, research in my field (genomics) and many others is far too expensive to be supported by individual small-scale donations. However, a crowdfunded project can be perfect for early-career researchers, pilot studies, research ideas outside the mainstream, and other niches. These projects can provide the crucial preliminary data required by mainstream funding agencies, to demonstrate the validity of the approach and the idea, and thereby have the potential to launch much larger studies. One high-impact paper in a new area can even initiate a whole new sub-field, magnifying the influence of any individual donor’s money.

In conclusion, there are a number of ways in which members of the public can communicate their opinions and priorities to scientists and those who fund them, none of which necessitate pitchforks and flaming torches. Money talks, but so do time, effort, and votes – so get cracking, and good luck!

The ideas in this post originated and evolved from an impromptu session I led at this year’s Vancouver Change Camp about what responsibilities science owes to society, and vice versa. Many thanks to all the participants for a fascinating discussion, and especially to Sara Mimick for her support on the day.