Mad (at) Scientists

The aim, of course, was to make researchers working on projects like “computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players” look profligate and foolish. Though mutual skepticism between lay citizens and academic scientists is nothing new, harnessing this ambivalence to further the aims of the Republican party was ingenious.

Despite the fact that so many of our nation’s policy challenges are related to science and technology, only 2 percent of Congress has a professional background in science. In November, Congress slashed the budget for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy by one-third. Science drives innovation, creates solutions to technical and environmental problems, and influences our health and safety, yet many Americans surveyed cannot name a single living scientist. Polls reveal ignorance about science, and in some cases, antipathy toward it.

How did we get here? As Shawn Lawrence Otto explains in Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, the U.S. is experiencing a multi-pronged science catastrophe that jeopardizes our “leadership in science research and development, and the economic and social benefits that leadership provides.”

Causes Otto explores include the ongoing assault on science by fundamentalists, the proliferation of business interests that skew and misrepresent science to further corporate profits, and scientists’ tendency to stay behind closed lab doors rather than engage with the public. Perhaps his most original argument is that the influence of postmodernism acclimated a generation of people, including policymakers and journalists, to the idea that truth is subjective — a concept antithetical to science. “Today, serious candidates for Congress and the presidency can openly state views that run counter to all known science and history, and many journalists don’t feel it is their role to point out that the emperor has no clothes,” he writes.

Scientists have not done their part to battle back. The incentive structure for achieving rank in the hard sciences includes neither communicating research conclusions to the public nor analyzing how research can contribute to policy. An even more pervasive cause, Otto suggests, is that scientists often think of themselves as politically neutral.

He offers few solutions. Scientists must “come out of their laboratories and talk about what they know in the public square,” Otto writes, citing a few notable academics, like Purdue biologist David Sanders, who has made three (unsuccessful) runs for Congress. One of his less feasible ideas involves engaging religious institutions to reconcile differences.

Otto himself is the co-founder of Science Debate, born out of the 2008 presidential race, when the candidates flatly refused to debate major science policy issues. In response, Otto and his cohorts organized leading scientists, journalists, Nobel laureates, and political operatives and called for a science debate. The movement generated media attention, and the candidates eventually acquiesced to an online forum.

Still, not exactly a paradigm shift. There is hope: According to a survey conducted by Science Debate and Research!America during the 2008 campaign, 85 percent of the American public thought the candidates should debate important science policy issues. Support was nearly equal among both parties. This remarkable statistic suggests that Eric Cantor’s “You
Cut” was half-right. Perhaps a guerilla campaign could be organized — but not one funded by the energy industry, organized by Republicans, and hell-bent on debasing science. Just the opposite.

Maybe we could call it “You Save.”

 

Alison Fairbrother is the director of the Public Trust Project (www.publictrustproject.org).