The goals of this blog are 1) to take a critical look at aspects of society that interfere with the potential of science and research to help people (below), and 2) to promote discussion on what scientists can do about these problems.
Aspects of society that interfere with science’s ability to address humanity’s challenges:
- Gaps in education, issues with the format of education
- Academic politics
- Spreading of misinformation by special interest groups, the inability of a large part of the public to question what they hear, and their apathy towards investigating the truth
- Scientists who are too shy or too apathetic to take action outside of their offices and laboratories
- Scientists who do take action, but it’s geared towards their own selfish interests instead of being about the science or the benefit of humanity
Motivation / Rationale
When I started grad school, I began paying attention not just to the science itself, but to the ways it was being applied. Some applications of science are exciting (examples that leap to mind are advances in prosthetics and a group that merges humanitarian work with neuroscience research), but some uses of science, or restrictions of use and information, strike me as illogical, counterproductive, and even scary. Private companies are patenting parts of the human genome, and using their patent to limit access to diagnostic tests. Unfounded distrust of vaccines (likely caused in part by the falsified work of Andrew Wakefield and resulting scandal) is manifesting as increasing vaccine refusal rates in the US, leading to increased risk of outbreaks. Activists relying on pseudoscience are raising obstacles to the use of Genetically Modified Organisms, even in cases when research demonstrates their effectiveness and the inserted gene products are known to be safe. (See also this article, and upcoming posts.)
And there are issues which are hardly new but continue to spark controversy. For example, we are still debating whether to provide health and sexual education in public schools despite a clear need for this education, shown in part by the increase of metabolic syndrome and the disproportionate number of STD cases in young people (ages 15-24) with increasing trends for some diseases and groups.
Not to mention that some people still don’t believe climate change is real, despite a large and growing body of evidence. (Some additional graphs on people’s beliefs here.)
Many of the problems we’re facing as a society and as a species are science-based, and yet a very small percentage of American lawmakers have training in science or engineering. Our legislature contains 1 physicist, 1 chemist, 6 engineers, and 1 microbiologist— all in the House, none in the Senate. That’s 9 out of 535 members of Congress, or 1.7% with a science or engineering background. Running for office isn’t the only way to affect policy, but it’s disappointing that training in science or engineering evidently isn’t a quality we seek in our leadership.
America is behind in this regard. For contrast, eight out of nine of China’s top government officials are scientists or engineers (stats from two years ago, under Hu Jintao).
Lack of legislators with science training, combined with the public’s lack of “scientific literacy” (understanding of science facts/content as well as its social implications/context), leads to a climate in which a (hopefully small?) subset of policy makers disseminate misinformation to further their own agendas, and most of the rest of policy makers aren’t informed enough to know the difference. Presumably some politicians have enough of a science background to distinguish opinion from evidence, or at least realize the importance of doing a little research to educate themselves before voting on the issues. Regardless, the few scientifically-informed politicians don’t seem to have much influence. Perhaps this is because they’re choosing to fight different political battles, or are being drowned out by the ignorant or malevolent politicians. Either way, the more scientists get involved in politics or political discourse, the better chance we stand at solving humanity’s problems.
Improving Scientific Discourse
I believe scientists could significantly influence the way society’s major problems are addressed if they increase their interactions, or change the nature of their interactions, in at least three contexts:
- Interactions with people to increase the scientific literacy of the public.
- Help people understand the purpose and importance of research. There must be many ways to do this. One obvious strategy is learning how to pitch your work to people with all levels of science backgrounds (from young kids to academic colleagues, and everyone in between) in a way that’s both understandable and captivating.
- Unless scientists can convince the public (and government) of the value of their work, funding will likely continue to decrease. NIH funding has already decreased, cutting hundreds of new grants, and NASA Science funding is further in that direction.
- LISTEN TO NON-SCIENTISTS to determine where discrepancies in opinions and priorities come from, in order to bridge the gap (from both directions). Scientists can and must learn from laypeople, as well as the other way around.
- Interactions with policy makers to influence legislation (something everyone should be doing, not just scientists).
- Communicate with your representatives. Educate yourself about candidates. Spread the information you find. Vote. Track the people in office (such as through opencongress, etc). Do what you can to hold them accountable– give them feedback on their votes, and talk to their other constituents about what you find.
- (“I don’t have time,” you say? We have to find the time, because this is important.)
- There are other ways scientists can contribute their training and expertise to policy– getting invited to speak in front of congress, inviting representative to listen in on a meeting, writing a document with the signatures of scientists and academics to be published in media and sent to a representative’s office.
- (I’m still learning about how these methods work, so this topic will get its own post eventually.)
- Interactions with other scientists to improve the quality of our work, increase the speed of our progress, and promote efficient collaboration instead of counterproductive competition.
- Science is becoming more specialized on the individual level (for example, someone being a developmental neurobiologist instead of a psychologist or neuroscientist), while simultaneously needing more multidisciplinary group research to make progress (such as using materials science for the future of drug delivery, optics and microbiology for optogenetics, and physics/mechanical engineering for prosthetics). Scientists need to learn how to share ideas with people in other fields to facilitate collaboration and make the fastest progress.
- In an academic environment, every now and then I hear someone talk about the fear of being “scooped.” (This is when another researcher publishes work similar/identical to yours before you do, lowering the impact of your work or making it less likely to be published.) I even heard a respected professor say– casually, as if it’s common practice and nothing is wrong with the statement– that we should purposely withhold some details of our work from publications so the work can only be replicated after a time investment. This is a prime example of people putting their personal interests above the greater good (and above the purpose of research), and thus an example of how academic competition is counterproductive. Honest and accurate communication between scientists should be considered imperative, since the point of research is to make progress for the sake of humanity, not to secure our own careers. (And perhaps if we make more progress, scientists would be more respected by the public, leading to more funding and the possibility that scientists can secure their careers by doing good work, not by blocking the progress of colleagues.)
- Scientists should attempt to set their priorities according to the needs of society, not just do work that is convenient with their current methods, or on a topic they’re comfortable with. This, along with collaboration across disciplines, may lead to more efficient use of funds with less competition. (Note that I don’t mean to downplay the importance of basic research here. I’m only saying that scientists should be motivated by the implications of their work, not just maintaining their professional comfort zone.)
I realize that this is a lot to ask of the public and the scientific community. I am definitely the “shy scientist type” myself, and still have so much to learn about social justice, politics, science and research, and communication. The goals I have described are standards that I have set for myself, and this blog is my attempt to begin following my own advice. In doing so, I hope to provide the best working guide I can for those who also wish to improve our collective scientific literacy.