Sunday, April 17, 2005

Science and priorities.

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 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 they 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. For example, space exploration. In this article Rick Weiss, a science writer for the Washington Post, bemoans the threats to funding of NASA projects like Voyager (still sending home data from the edge of the solar system). More generally, he expresses 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." Weiss goes 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 and you're risking economic growth. Of course, Weiss doesn't want to say the only value in scientific research is in marketable products. Rather, he says, an even more important for the public to support research is

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 confess, that leaves me a little choked up.

But, I don't know ... Scientists 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. (Do you hear that Dover, PA?) Will a certain percentage of the scientist's working budget have to go to public relations? ("Knowledge: It's not just for dilettantes any more!") 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.

Problem: Scientists value something that the public at large seems not to value. The scientists think the public ought to value it. Meanwhile, the public supports science, but feels like science ought to deliver practical results ASAP. Can this marriage be saved?

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. For example, it turns out there's now a vaccine against human papilloma virus (HPV) that is nearly through the approval process. HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer. (Not a totally harmless virus for men: it causes genital warts.) Add another vaccination to the battery of routine childhood immunizations and HPV is outta there So, here's a perfect example of science doing precisely what the public wants it to do. Except, politically, there's a little problem:

In the US, for instance, religious groups are gearing up to oppose vaccination, despite a survey showing 80 per cent of parents favour vaccinating their daughters. "Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV," says Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian lobby group that has made much of the fact that, because it can spread by skin contact, condoms are not as effective against HPV as they are against other viruses such as HIV.

"Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex," Maher claims, though it is arguable how many young women have even heard of the virus.

(If you want to read a spot-on rant about this, hie yourself to Amanda Marcotte's post at Pandagon. She's done the ranting so I don't have to.)

(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?

But 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 the moment. The central issue here 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 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, um, 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? 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 some place else. We like our headache medicines and our satellite TV and our DSL and our Splenda too much for that.

So hey, for a few moments, can we 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?


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