How to make science great again

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It’s incredible that in the wake of financial crises and populist movements around the world anyone would wonder whether a glitzy awards gala and lavish prizes would help improve the public’s view of science, yet that is one proposal to boost the public’s opinion in the wake of floundering financial support.

Bruce Y. Lee, who comments on science issues for Forbes magazine, observes a decline in science in the U.S., largely due to diminishing funding and brain drain, and says that to reverse it, “our society’s views of science have to change.” It’s true that reversal isn’t going to happen without public support, but I doubt the public is going to buy his proposal to reverse it, which is to lavishly fete scientists:

One way to do this is to give real scientists more celebrity treatment through awards shows, television, movies, advertisements and other means. Again, real scientists and not actors playing scientists. Seem a little far-fetched? Think that scientists can’t handle the spotlight and do anything besides science? Well, you only have to look in our country’s history to find numerous scientists playing more prominent and leadership roles in society. Moreover, after this year’s presidential election, anything seems possible.

This is cargo cult thinking. Celebrity is the result of public interest, not the cause of it. Celebrity isn’t what makes people love entertainment, it’s the ability of entertainers to connect with audiences in a deeply personal way that makes people love the medium and those who create it. It’s no different with science.

The moderately good news is that according to surveys by the National Science Board and the Pew Foundation, Americans remain generally positive about the benefits of science. The bad news is that: a) trust in and support for science is gradually declining; and b) while Americans are generally supportive of government investment in research, they are overwhelmingly disinclined to support increases in funding. I don’t know the exact reason for the latter, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that, given record government and personal debt and no pressing scientific issues on which Americans are united, most of the public doesn’t see science funding as a high priority. As for the former, I think a lot of this has to do with Americans feeling increasingly disconnected from the enterprise of science.

I’ve been studying and working in science for twenty years, and my experience during that time is that Americans are almost uniformly fascinated by science. People are just naturally inclined to be interested by the natural world, and more so as discoveries increasingly reveal what a complex and strange world we inhabit. It’s no surprise, then, that at least since the early 20th century the general public in the U.S. has been happy to confer celebrity status on the best-known and most personable scientists, including the original rock-star-scientist himself, Albert Einstein, as well people like Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Hawking. These scientists captured the public’s imagination, not just because of their endearing personal quirks, but because they had a passion for popularizing science and making it seem accessible, relevant, and personal to the average person.

So, why is science, as Lee observed, in a state of decline in the U.S.? A lot can be said about this, but I’ll see if I can distill it a bit. For most of the history of science, funding has come from wealthy private donors and monarchs. While private donation remains an important source of funding, the vast majority now comes from the federal government. Government funding of science in the U.S. is a relatively new thing that had a modest beginning about a hundred years ago and really got going during the Eisenhower era with the military-industrial complex. Since then, there have been temporary peaks in funding during times of great political interest in science — world war, food crises, the space race, etc. — which led to gluts in science infrastructure, including more scientists, which then require ongoing investment to continue. However, it was naive to expect that science funding would’ve steadily increased indefinitely into the future. With a declining economy, few pressing social issues to galvanize the public about supporting science, and a gradual erosion of trust, there’s not much reason to be optimistic about the future of funding.

I want to go back to the idea of ostentatiously celebrating scientists to bolster public support for science and explain something that many in the upper echelons of science seem not to understand. There was already a deep reservoir of appreciation and admiration for science and scientists that was built up over hundreds of years of dedicated work and relatively recent attempts by scientists to connect with the public through popularization. We already had science celebrities like Einstein, Sagan, and Hawking who made the average person feel connected to science in a personal way. So, what happened? What happened is that much of that celebrity and public goodwill was squandered over the last several decades by over-politicization, ideologizing, and corruption of science. If Lee and others have any interest in generating public support for science, they need to address and reverse these things.

As far as I can see, the most pressing PR problems for science are:

  1. The politicization of science
  2. The use of science as ideological weaponry
  3. Corruption in science
  4. The over-sensationalizing and misreporting of science by the popular media
  5. The dumbing down of education

1. When the average person is told that, in spite of his concerns and reasonable skepticism, he must alter his lifestyle because of something he’s not allowed to question without being labeled a science denier, he feels disconnected from science. This started when certain scientists and their supporters began using language like, “the debate is over” and “there is a consensus” to shut down discussion. This is bad. It has to stop.

2. When the average person is told that science is hostile to his most cherished beliefs, he feels disconnected from science. This began at least as far back as Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s infamous “bulldog,” who deliberately misused the theory of evolution to undermine Christian belief by claiming that evolution had rendered God superfluous. This has unfortunately continued not only in biology, but in physics, as well with Stephen Hawking trading in his admirable career as a physicist and popularizer of science in order to become an anti-religious amateur philosopher. This isn’t to say scientists shouldn’t have their own opinions about the philosophical meaning of their work, but they should certainly be circumspect about using their work as a way to attack the dominant belief system of the people who fund it.

3. This one isn’t entirely the fault of scientists. The collapse of government funding bubbles has created a hyper-competitive environment that not only promotes the propagation of honest errors, but provides perverse incentives to cheat. This taints all of science, and creates an image problem with the public. Nobody wants to subsidize errors and fraud, after all. Ironically, logic dictates that the best way to deal with this is to eliminate government funding.

4. This one annoys scientists to no end. The media have a bad habit of grabbing hold of a mildly interesting scientific result and blowing it wildly out of proportion, mostly to get clicks and more ad revenue, but sometimes to reinforce an anti-religion bias. A recent example of this was the ludicrously over-sensationalized headline that physicists had disproved the big bang and a beginning to the universe.

I contacted a physicist whose results had been given this media treatment, and, contrary to how the reporter had spun the article, he expressed confusion and frustration over how his work had been misrepresented to serve an anti-religion narrative. This is why I won’t talk to the popular media about my work anymore unless the journalist is a credentialed scientist and the journal has an established track record of scientific accuracy. But other scientists keep falling for it, because they’re far too trusting of the media.

Again, when the average person is told that science is hostile to his most cherished beliefs, he feels disconnected from science. Furthermore, the average person, though he may not have advanced training in science, also has a sense of when he’s being sold a bill of goods. Frustrated, he may not realize it’s the pop media that can’t be trusted, and he just tosses everything out as untrustworthy. This won’t stop until scientists start refusing to feed the madness and hold the media accountable.

5. Schools are failing to teach children not only essential skills and knowledge of facts, but how to think critically. Most young people can recite at least the most basic scientific facts — for instance, they know that the Earth goes around the Sun — but given my experience, most of them have no idea how science works. The Pew survey results likewise indicate that both scientists and average Americans hold a negative view of STEM education at the K-12 level. Until this changes, it’s unreasonable to expect that science will not continue to decline in this country.

Unless something significant changes, I’m skeptical that the decline in government funding will be reversed. Personally, I would prefer some version of private support — I think it encourages better research and accountability — but, whatever your preference, it’s extremely doubtful that we can reverse this trend by trying to manufacture a culture of celebrity around scientists. Rather, I think we should deal with the core issues of science’s PR problem, and make Americans once again feel connected to the enterprise of science. Then, maybe, we can make science in America great again.

4 thoughts on “How to make science great again

  1. Well said! As a Libertarian, I applaud your suggestion that science eschew government funding. That’s a bold statement, but it makes me sad to realize how many things governments waste money on that do not contribute to the public good nearly as much as science. I’m sure we agree science should not be at the top of the list.

  2. Pingback: The Idealization of Science | Perspective

  3. I think that a big part of the problem is that so much about science today is about fund raising. While this is certainly not a universal thing which applies to all scientists and engineers, there are so many groups and organizations and a fixed amount of funding that is available from all sources to fund research. As a result, much of the effort of many great scientific teams, be they University, government or privately based, is focused on raising more and more money. This I think is the root of many problems in science today. I think the widespread experiment replication issues are about reporting positive results – because who is going to grant money to those with negative findings? Those who want more awards – hey, its much easier to “Scientist of the Year” Dr. John Doe, fresh off his appearance on the Tonight show – to raise money than it is for just Dr. John Doe. Politicization of science? Well you better tow the line and check all the politically correct boxes if you want that grant money. Weaponization of science? If your science fits the needs of the ideologues who are handing out the money, you are in great shape! Anyway, I just feel like the empire building quest for money by so many scientists (of course not all, but a significant number) is the root of so many of the problems.

  4. It’s a known problem, Chris, that a hyper-competitive fund-seeking environment leads to bad science. Someone recently modeled this scenario and discovered that even with no falsifying or other shenanigans, bad results still get propagated at an alarming rate.

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