Markets work well when there’s a chain from wholesaler to retailer to customer…and back. If none of the customer payments makes it back to the wholesaler, soon there may be few to no wholesalers producing anything worth buying. That’s bad for wholesalers, bad for retailers, and bad for customers. That’s why, for example, Napster, Youtube and torrents upset the system. 

Now let’s consider the analog for science journalism, which aims to bring science to the public. If we were to try to force science journalism into the wholesale-retail-customer stamp, then scientists would be the wholesalers, science journalists the retailers, and the interested layperson the customer.

Although there’s something right about the analogy, there’s something deeply missing as well: there’s no “payback” to the science wholesaler. Unlike retailers, science journalists don’t pay scientists when they write about their discoveries. The incentives that are crucial to the functioning wholesale-retail-customer loop are not all accounted for, because the link from retail back to wholesale is missing. (In fairness, though, it is not entirely true that there are no incentives for the scientist wholesaler: science journalists provide exposure to a scientist’s work, which can have values of its own. These incentives are fairly weak, however, and appear to be valued by only a small fraction of scientists, such as trade book authors.)

Despite some prima facie similarities, then, science journalism is not currently playing the role of retailer in science. And although the “products” of scientists are being utilized by science journalists, scientists don’t amount to wholesalers because they are driven to do their research via incentives quite independent of market mechanisms. 

Let’s consider, though, what would happen if the “incentive link” from science journalist to scientist were made. What if the role of science journalism were not just to fill the demand of the populace – i.e., to provide great science stories (packaged better than scientist-wholesalers generally can) for the minds of the populace – but also to serve as retail-style incentivizers for scientists? What if the role of science journalism were two-way: from scientist to laymen, but also the other way around? 

How are science journalists to communicate to scientists the interests of the populace, and to motivate scientists to pursue research filling that demand? By paying scientists a cut of whatever they make, of course!

If you’re a science journalist, don’t stop reading quite yet.

Yes, science journalism today is on the skids, and it would appear that the last thing a science journalist needs to worry about is sending money to ol’ Changizi. However, we must remember to take our zero-sum-game hats off. By putting the right incentives in place, one can grow markets from dry or dead ones. Without the appropriate incentives, wholesalers stop producing, and retailers are left with nothing customers are interested to buy – no market.

But with the right incentives, tremendously rich and diverse markets can be tapped into, as wholesalers are motivated to create great products. Retailers get richer, not poorer, when they pay for products they sell.

Although this is all obvious for markets, would it work for science journalism? If market mechanisms were assembled that siphoned off some of the science journalism profit and channeled it to the scientists responsible for the discoveries, scientists would become more motivated to communicate their research to science journalists, but also more motivated to carry out research likely to be considered interesting to some niche market of laymen science consumers. With more scientists incentivized to carry out research on problems that are interesting to some swathe of consumers, science journalists may more quickly get their store shelves filled with highly sought after product.

And with more great product, and of greater variety, the overall market for science journalism may very substantially rise. As with any better functioning market, perhaps science journalists would make a substantially better living by sending payments to their scientist wholesalers.

In addition to the potential advantages for science journalists, there are potential upsides for the public: the public would then have a means by which to communicate to scientists what they’re curious about. Sure, one might imagine a spike in research on, say, sex, but the interests among laymen are sophisticated and varied, with many niches of scientific interests. 

Mechanisms of this kind may also provide new opportunities for getting funds into the hands of scientists. This may increase the total amount of funding directed toward the sciences, but also may provide scientists with greater opportunities at finding funding consistent with their interests, and provide funding for research directions that have no foreseeable application but nevertheless capture the imagination of some portion of the public. 

But isn’t this a terrible idea? Science is not supposed to be entrepreneurship.  Scientists need to be independent in their search for truth, rather than trying to appeal to a market. Indeed, I agree (see, but science today has drifted a long way from the days of the creative lone wolf professor pushing science in the directions he or she sees fit. The typical scientist today has had his or her independence swallowed up by another source: the quest for grant funding. The 21st century scientist spends much of his or her waking life shopping and applying for grants. Scientists may not be driven to satisfy the interests of the public, but they have become slaves to another master: the program director for this or that government funding agency. 

The objection that scientists shouldn’t have to sully their independence is a day late and grant dollar short. The question is not whether scientists have to sell themselves, but to whom they must sell themselves. Selling to the populace, through science journalists as retailer, may in principle provide considerable freedom, because there are often widely varying interests among the populace, and tremendous potential for niche science consumers.

I know, I know… science journalists are probably not confortable thinking of themselves as retailers of anything, buying from wholesalers. But if it could work, perhaps it promises a new day for science journalism, and a new day for the practice of science.