I recently had the privilege of being asked to participate in a project called "Story Collider." The goal is to revive the art and joy of storytelling, but in this case the story tellers are scientists and the audience is the general public. It is daunting for a scientist to release the security of the lab bench and venture into the environment of the stand-up comic to speak alone into a microphone on a stage without benefit of data, PowerPoint slides, or a script. Imagine yourself sanding there before a packed house of public citizens who purchased tickets to be entertained and enlightened, and then consider-- the reality is that you are not an entertainer, but rather a nerd. But I found the public eager to hear from scientists and appreciative of the opportunity and the effort scientists put forth that evening.
The theme for the event, held just outside the Nation’s Capital and produced with The Story League, was "Politics and Science." In retelling the story of my first scientific publication, I spoke about the essence of scientific discovery; the strange mix of emotions it unleashes, and why we are compelled to do scientific research. I made the point that, in my view, too often science is explained to the public and justified for government funding on the basis of its practical value in curing disease, or in providing a technological advance. That’s easy. There is no question that the fruits of basic science will provide practical benefits, but that is not the only reason why we do science.
"Scientific curiosity is the core of the human soul—wonder. Human beings have a compelling need to explore nature and understand the world around us. We are all scientists," I observed. "Some of us have the privilege of pursuing scientific discovery as a career, but the rest of us make science possible by contributing their hard-earned money and their curiosity in support of science. Science is a group effort." Forty-eight hours later I had my faith tested.
I happened to hear NPR Science Reporter Nell Greenfeldboyce’s story broadcast on "Morning Edition" about "Shrimp on a Treadmill: The Politics of ‘Silly’ Science Studies." It featured prominent politicians, including Senator Tom Coburn and Mike Huckabee, ridiculing scientific research as a waste of tax payer money, citing examples of frivolous research studying such things as shrimp running on a treadmill, or determining the nicotine content in toenail clippings, and several other examples of what they claimed were wastes of precious taxpayer money.
If the politicians were being sincere, then I am wrong about the universal appreciation of scientific research in our society and the need it fills within each of us as human beings, but I do not believe that the politicians were acting sincerely. In each case it was clear that the politicians had deliberately misrepresented the research simply to ridicule it for political gain. This raises several important questions. Why would intelligent people, whom citizens entrust to represent their interests, trash scientific research in this way? What are the causes and consequences of such attacks? If this view of science is not generally shared among intelligent people in all walks of life, then this is a misrepresentation and an abuse of the public trust. Should politicians be held accountable?
"Receiving federal funds is a privilege, not a right. If they don’t want their funding scrutinized, don’t ask," John Hart, spokesperson for Senator Tom Coburn said in the NPR report. But in fact, scientific research grant proposals are highly scrutinized. The relevant question is who should do the scrutinizing—scientists or politicians? Do we permit politicians to scrutinize the structural integrity of a bridge constructed with public funds or do we assign that critical task to expert engineers? Are politicians any better equipped to evaluate the integrity of scientific research?
Receiving grant funding for scientific research is extremely difficult and grants are awarded to only a small fraction of the submitted research proposals. These proposals are scrutinized carefully by scientists who are specialists in the field. As any working scientist, I serve as a scientific reviewer on committees for several granting organizations including those providing government funding (the NSF and NIH), various disease foundations, and even granting institutions in foreign countries. This world-wide scope is necessary because only a hand-full of scientists may have the particular expertise to evaluate highly specialized research at the cutting edge of current knowledge. Scientists provide this service freely out of a strong sense of duty to support scientific research. Only the very best research succeeds in receiving public funds and many excellent and important research proposals go unfunded because money is so limited. If the politicians doubt this, I would suggest they do an experiment. Submit a grant proposal to study shrimp running on a treadmill, and see what happens. The grant would be rejected at the first stage of review.
Ultimately, the fault here lies not with the politicians, but with scientists themselves. Scientists must do a better job of explaining their research findings to the public who support them, and to do so honestly and in terms that anyone without special expertise in their field could understand and appreciate. One expects no less from an auto mechanic who explains what he did with the money given him to repair a car. However, scientists are discouraged from interacting with the public in this way, and such effort is more likely viewed negatively as an inappropriate use of a scientist’s time. Robert Kraut, a researcher quoted in the NPR report who was a target of Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award for wasting tax dollars for his research, shrugs off the political attacks on science as "nothing new" and without serious consequences because such public ridicule never gains traction with the general public. Considering the recent government shut-downs and near shut-downs, I wonder if such complacency is wise.
Are the politicians out of step with the public in their attitudes toward scientific research or are we on the verge of seeing public support of science in America crumbling under the strain of current economic and political stresses? Many great magazines have come and gone over the years, but I think it is instructive that the magazine with the longest record of publication in America is Scientific American.
Note: The story I told at the Story Collider event of my first scientific publication is the untold "back story" for some of the research in an article of mine published in the August 2007 issue of Scientific American "The Shark’s Electric Sense."