Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science

Building knowledge, training new scientists, sharing a world.

Science, priorities, and the challenges of sharing a world.


For scientists, doing science is often about trying to satisfy deep curiosity about how various bits of our world work. For society at large, it often seems like science ought to exist primarily to solve particular pressing problems -- or at least, that this is what science ought to be doing, given that our tax dollars are going to support it. It's not a completely crazy idea. Even if tax dollars weren't funding lots of scientific research and the education of scientists (even at private universities), the public might expect scientists to focus their attention on pressing problems, simply because scientists have the expertise to solve these problems and other members of society don't.

This makes it harder to get the public to care about funding science for which the pay-off is not obviously useful, especially "basic research". You want to understand the structure of subatomic particles, or the fundamental forces at work in our universe? That's great, but how is it going to help us live longer, or help us build more fuel-efficient vehicles, or bring smaller iPods to market? Most members of the public don't even know what a quark is, let alone care about whether you can detect a particular kind of quark experimentally. Satisfying our curiosity about the details on the surface of Mars can strike folks not gripped by that particular curiosity as a distraction from important questions that science could be answering instead.

A typical response is to note that basic research has in the past led to unanticipated practical applications. Of course, this isn't a way to get the public to see the intrinsic value of basic research -- it merely asks them to value such research instrumentally, as sort of a mystery box that is bound to contain some payoff which we cannot describe in advance but which promises to be awesome.

Some years ago Rick Weiss made an argument like this in the Washington Post in defense of space research. For example, space exploration. Weiss expressed concern that "Americans have lost sight of the value of non-applied, curiosity-driven research -- the open-ended sort of exploration that doesn't know exactly where it's going but so often leads to big payoffs," then went through an impressive list of scientific projects that started off without any practical applications but ended up making possible all manner of useful applications. Limit basic science, the argument went, and you're risking economic growth.

But Weiss was careful not to say the only value in scientific research is in marketable products. Rather, he offered an even more important reason for the public to support research:

Because our understanding of the world and our support of the quest for knowledge for knowledge's sake is a core measure of our success as a civilization. Our grasp, however tentative, of what we are and where we fit in the cosmos should be a source of pride to all of us. Our scientific achievements are a measure of ourselves that our children can honor and build upon.

I find that a pretty inspiring description of science's value, but it's not clear that most members of the public would be similarly misty-eyed.

Scientists may already feel that they have to become the masters of spin to get even their practical research projects funded. Will the scientists also have to take on the task of convincing the public at large that a scientific understanding of ourselves and of the world we live in should be a source of pride? Will a certain percentage of the scientist's working budget have to go to public relations? ("Knowledge: It's not just for dilettantes anymore!") Maybe the message that knowledge for knowledge's sake is a fitting goal for a civilized society is the kind of thing that people would just get as part of their education. Only it's not on the standardized tests, and it seems like that's the only place the public wants to put up money for education any more. Sometimes not even then.

The problem here is that scientists value something that the public at large seems not to value. The scientists think the public ought to value it, but they don't have the power to impose their will on the public in this regard any more than the public can demand that scientists stop caring about weird things like quarks. Meanwhile, the public supports science, at least to the extent that science can deliver practical results in a timely fashion. There would probably be tension in this relationship even if scientists weren't looking to the public for funding.

Of course, when scientists do tackle real-life problems and develop real-life solutions, it's not like the public is always so good about accepting them. Consider the mixed public reception of the vaccine against human papilloma virus (HPV). The various strains of HPV are the leading cause of cervical cancer, and are not totally benign for men, causing genital warts and penile cancers. You would think that developing a reasonably safe and effective vaccine against a virus like HPV is exactly the sort of scientific accomplishment the public might value -- except that religious groups in the US voiced opposition to the HPV vaccine on the grounds that it might give young women license to engage in premarital sex rather than practicing abstinence.

(The scientist scratches her head.) Let me get this straight: Y'all want to cut funding for the basic science because you don't think it will lead to practical applications. But when we do the research to solve what seems like a real problem -- people are dying from cervical cancer -- y'all tell us this is a problem you didn't really want us to solve?

Here, to be fair, it's not everyone who wants to opt out of the science, just a part of the population with a fair bit of political clout at particular moments in history. The central issue seems to be that our society is made up of a bunch of people (including scientists) with rather different values, which lead to rather different priorities. In thinking about where scientific funding comes from, we talk as though there were a unitary Public with whom the unitary Science transacts business. It might be easier were that really the case. Instead, the scientists get to deal with the writhing mass of contradictory impulses that is the American public. About the only thing that public knows for sure is that it doesn't want to pay more taxes.

How can scientists direct their efforts at satisfying public wants, or addressing public needs, if the public itself can't come to any robust agreement on what those wants and needs are? If science has to prove to the public that the research dollars are going to the good stuff, will scientists have to stretch things a little in the telling?

Or might it actually be better if the public (or the politicians acting in the public's name) spent less time trying to micro-manage scientists as they set the direction of their research? Maybe it would make sense, if the public decided that having scientists in society was a good thing for society, to let the scientists have some freedom to pursue their own scientific interests, and to make sure they have the funding to do so.

I'm not denying that the public has a right to decide where its money goes, but I don't think putting up the money means you get total control. Because if you demand that much control, you may end up having to do the science yourself. Also, once science delivers the knowledge, it seems like the next step is to make that knowledge available. If particular members of the public decide not to avail themselves of that knowledge (because they feel it would be morally wrong, or maybe just silly, as in the case of pet cloning), that is their decision. We shouldn't be making life harder for the scientists for doing what good scientists do.

It's clear that there are forces at work in American culture right now that are not altogether comfortable with all that science has to offer at the moment. Discomfort is a normal part of sharing society with others who don't think just like you do. But hardly anyone thinks it would be a good idea to ship all the scientists off to someplace else. We like our tablet computers and our smartphones and our headache medicines and our DSL and our Splenda too much for that.

Perhaps, for a few moments, we should give the hard-working men and women of science a break and thank them for the knowledge they produce, whether we know what to do with it or not. Then, we can return to telling them about the pieces of our world we'd like more help navigating, and see whether they have any help to offer yet.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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