The arguments for young people's involvement in decisions about science funding

The following is a version of an article I wrote for the British Science Association’s magazine in May 2009. It puts forward some arguments for why I think young people should be involved in decisions about science funding. I’m posting it now because it’s relevant to conversations we were having on twitter yesterday.

There are further arguments, not covered here, which are that having to explain their work and its implications to teenagers helps scientists think them through. And that kids are good bullshit detectors. I might get round to writing a post on those aspects one day.

“Interesting but badly paid work on offer” said the email. As an out-of-work TV researcher, paid work sounded good and interesting was even better. I signed up for two weeks as an online moderator for a youth engagement project called I’m a Councillor, Get me out of Here!

The event got young people talking to and voting for their councillors and the way it grabbed me took me by surprise.

The young people were honest, earnest, sparky, warm – and so frustrated. I began to see that our society scapegoats and marginalises young people, and that this wasn’t the way to help them grow up happy, sane and integrated into society.

During the event I saw councillors and teenagers making connections. I saw young people blossom as we gave them a voice that was listened to. “Why don’t we do this for science?” I thought.

Several years later we have now run two I’m a Scientist events and they’ve worked even better than I’d hoped. I firmly believe we should go further and use events like this to give young people some real input into funding decisions in science. I think there are several moral arguments for this:-

1. They are the adults of the future.

Young people will be affected by the decisions made now far more than most adults, because they will live with the results for longer. Shouldn’t they have some say in the world we make for them.

2. They are the young people of now.

Even when today’s teenagers are grown up, there will still be new teenagers. If there are ways that teenagers are particularly affected by science and technology then isn’t it only democratic to have some input from actual teenagers?

3. Engagement just has to be two-way.

If we want people to engage with science, then it can’t be a one-way street. People aren’t just an audience for our clever science, nor just a chequebook to pay for it. If we want their attention and their money then we need to give them a say too. This argument applies to young people as much as the rest of the population.

I think there’s a pragmatic argument too: people engage much better if they are included, not lectured at. They take more of an interest in things they can affect, they feel ownership over things they’ve been involved with and they learn by doing more than they learn by rote.

So are there risks of giving young people some input into funding decisions? Well, some would suggest young people might make the ‘wrong’ decisions. I’m not sure how we know what the ‘right’ decisions are though. If wrong means ‘not the same as the experts’, then surely all arguments for public participartion fall at the same hurdle?

Another objection I’ve heard is that it would trivialise the funding process (and by extension, science). It’s the people who haven’t taken part in the event who think this.

I’ve stood in a classroom observing an I’m a Scientist lesson, eavesdropping on a group of young people fiercely disagreeing about which scientist to vote for. One scientist was trying to reduce road deaths, another developing anti-cancer drugs. The students earnestly argued back and forth about the numbers killed on the roads or by cancer, whether that was all cancers or just specific ones, how many a given treatment might save, how to factor in people not killed but maimed.

Most young people take the responsibility they’ve been given very seriously – the more so because they appreciate that they’ve been trusted with something, which is not the way they are normally treated by the adult world.  It is my experience that, given the chance, young people are very capable of making informed and considered decisions. So let’s give them the chance.

Posted on October 28, 2010 by in Science Engagement. Comments Off on The arguments for young people's involvement in decisions about science funding