The Rightful Place of Science

So I’m sure you’ve all heard by now that, in Obama’s inauguration speech, he spoke of putting science “back in its rightful place”. Since then, Seed, our Benevolent Overlords ™, has started the Rightful Place Project, and has asked all of us what IS the rightful place of science.
It’s taken Sci a little while to formulate her thoughts, and being that she is usually a creature that delivers teh scienz rather than teh politikul opinyunz, it’s not assured that this will be a masterful oration on this subject, like those found at Highly Allocthanus, Orac, Dr. Isis, Zuska, Ed, Chad, Bora, ok, well everyone, pretty much. Sci does not promise anything so eloquent.

I can tell you that the President’s line resonated pretty heavily at my MRU. We gathered in one of the big auditoriums to see the inauguration, and when the new President spoke that line, a huge cheer went up from all the scientists, staring raptly at the screen in our scrubs and lab coats. It wasn’t just the message of hope in the face of continuous budget cuts and 3rd percentile funding (yes, really, in some areas, 3rd percentile). I think it was the first time some of them had felt valued by someone that mattered in a long time.
Of course, a lot of scientists don’t necessarily care if someone else values what they’re doing. Science is not generally a career path you take just because you’re looking for a career, it’s something you do because you have a passion. Many of us go into scientific research because we have burning questions about everything in the universe, and we really just needed a focus. Even more of us go into science with the idea of helping out humanity along the line, making the discoveries that could save or improve the lives of millions. And most of us go about it quietly, not really expecting much hoopla unless it’s Nobel Prize time. The hoopla goes to the medical doctors who re-attach a hand, who perform the heart transplant, who save the lives. We go around in the background, designing the drugs, testing the treatments, finding out how things work so we can find out what can go wrong. Even the biggest of us are mostly gods only in our own field, venerated by the few who follow in our footsteps.
And we’re usually pretty satisfied. I’ll be happy if the people in my own LAB think my research is awesome (well, ok, I’d like the people who publish it to think it’s awesome, too). Until recently, we haven’t expected people to know or even care about our research, let alone to understand it. But in the past few years, with the help of blogs, new coverage, and sometimes school outreach programs, we’ve begun to get the word out. And with the word out, I know I’d like people to be…impressed. Often, the research going on today is on the cutting edge, the cutting edge of what the human species is even capable of. Research is coming out based on techniques that are so space-age sounding that it seems like we should be on Star Trek. We can put electrodes in your brain that can help keep the symptoms of Parkinson’s at bay. We can put in pace makers to make your heart keep ticking. We can even give you an erection whenever you want it. Most of this stuff still takes place in the background, with only the latest and greatest stuff making headlines.
So it was really nice to receive some kudos, especially from a figure that inspires respect in so many, and who has his own array of degrees. But now we’re faced with a question, what IS the rightful place of science? What is OUR rightful place, as scientists?
My first answer is: on the TOP! But I’m not the only perspective out there. Science is something that I live and breathe almost 24 hours a day. Those of us in academia, and on the science blogs, breathe some very rareified air. To us, science IS the be all. The scientific method is the point. It is the only rational way to question the world around us. And it scares us to realize that most people probably couldn’t name very many ways in which science impacts their daily life, and find the scientific method to be a cold, alien thing.
So people don’t really understand the VALUE of science, and only when they understand the value of what we do will they believe that science is actually in the wrong place, and needs to be put in the right place. They don’t understand the value of science because, for many years now, scientific findings have been ignored or even treated with disdain. And they don’t understand the value of science because so much of what we do goes on invisibly, or in such apparently tiny increments. Taken out of context, a single scientific study (like the now famous example of fruit flies in Paris) seems like it doesn’t do much, or seems like it has no meaning at all. It takes an understanding of the value of science to see that studies on basic mechanisms can end up with a lot of value.
Most people don’t realize that so many scientists are out there pursuing the deep questions of life. They think that there must be just a few, the ones working on the large hadron collider, the high–profile ones working on cancer or Anlzheimer’s, but most of these people have an army of others working with them, and working on other questions. All the things that could save your life, and then maybe make it a little more worth living. Better ways to grow crops in arid land, ways to provide dry flush toilets for sanitation, ways to purify water, to grow new organs and bones. In recent years, the internet (and it’s hard working science bloggers) have done a great deal to bring science out into the public eye, but still, information will only go to those who click through.
More advances are also needed in education, convincing young people that scientific research, or just a working knowledge of science, is a worthy endeavor. And it is. These days people are exposed to more science in their daily lives than they have ever been exposed to before. The computers on which they surf the internet for science on the vaccination they just got sums it all up pretty nicely. More people need to be inspired to pursue science, to teach science, to simply want to understand the world around them a little better. Not only that, people need to see science, and the scientific methods, not as a cold, alien thing, but as something to be used every day, as the practical application of logic which we use in making almost all our daily decisions. Once people are taught to recognize this, science can begin to return to its rightful place.
So IS the place of science on the top? I wouldn’t go that far. Science and scientists do need to be valued, but you cannot solve every single world problem with science. Science has limits. Not only that, there are more and more cases in which science comes into conflict, or at least debate, with current moralities, and it would be incorrect to simply toss them aside in pursuit of science. But science deserves a major place, along with these other considerations.
Science needs a voice. A voice of reason, a voice of information. So when the government, or your friend down the street is trying to make a decision, it won’t just be got instinct. It will be feelings, AND science, AND social considerations, AND economics. And based on all of these factors, a decision can be reached. When science is included, I feel that decision is more likely to be beneficial. The place of science may not be at the very top. But it should at least be in the cabinet. And it should definitely be in the classrooms.

6 Responses

  1. Very nice post, SciC!

  2. My sister also reported a huge cheer from an assemblage of scientists in response to that line.

  3. Quite eloquent, perhaps all the more so for avoiding hyperbole. Nice answer, Sci.

  4. “Science needs a voice. A voice of reason, a voice of information.”
    It is in this respect that science is not well-served by the popular media. So much hype and hoopla that just ain’t so when you actually get down to the data.
    Not that the data isn’t meaningful, but it doesn’t serve the further funding of science to present a finding as a cure.
    I have a stack of Scientific American magazines going back to 80s. Ever so often, I will read some science news that triggers a memory of research done years ago. Sometimes it merely is a recycling of press releases and that is annoying.
    Most of the time, it’s progress but reported in the same words as the initial research, which leads the few of us paying attention to believe that no progress is being made, thus money being wasted.
    And it just might be helpful to make the complete articles more available to the general public. How are we supposed to ever be more than rubes or morons if we don’t have access to the actual work? We really aren’t that stupid, but a lot of time, money, and effort is put forth to convince us to believe things that just aren’t so. The latest example is the recent press release storm about an obesity virus (and company which sells testing kits for such a virus).
    (btw, I’m saving those magazines for my grandchildren’s future science projects)
    Speaking of children and books, personally I’d love to see more science related books for toddlers. After they’ve learned all their body parts, colors, shapes, and the names of some big mammals, how about a book about insects. Or rocks. Kids love collecting rocks.
    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written, I just think the problem is worse than something the government can deal with, because the government itself is lacking in credibility.

  5. I am impressed with what has been done already. Science has been pushed to the bottom of the list of priorities for too long. However, the problem does need to be fixed not only by the government by also by other organizations and by every person in the way they perceive what science has become. It’s a process that has, thankfully, begun changing.
    This post was very impressive and I do strongly agree with you.

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