I wanted to finally post something this month related to science now that the US election is over. A fair warning, this will be another opinion piece of mine; I welcome the opportunity to discuss all manner of opinions.
I, as a scientist in the United States, like many other scientists, apply for funding from the US government. This can come from a number of different places: The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the US Department of Energy, US the Department of Defense and many other government sources. There are also outside sources of funding: The Gates Foundation, MacArthur Fellows Program, and The Beckman Foundation all of which provide funding for projects with specific goals in mind. This brings up the obvious question: what sort of bias does receiving funding from a given institute introduce into the scientific process? To address this first point I want to highlight the fact that when scientists apply for a project grant they have already developed a project to fit a specific funding call. From all I can tell faceless government organizations are not handing out projects to push political agendas. Ideas are the currency of the scientific community; few people with good ideas rely on somebody else to pursue them! As scientists we constantly look for new areas to expand the knowledge of the scientific community and we’re always willing to challenge our own views. So while, yes, funding directives might limit the scope of scientific inquiry the scientific community will always look for ways to expand beyond just the easy funding opportunities.
Along this point as well, the scientific community is a global community that goes beyond nationalism. There are nationalistic biases in research as well. People may question the ethics of research done in certain parts of the world or whether or not the results produced there are reliable. I’ve heard people say more than once to take authors’ papers from a particular part of the globe “with a grain of salt.” Still that doesn’t mean that they should be shut out. Their ideas should be put to the test like anyone else’s ideas and if they hold up to scrutiny then they hold up. As scientists from the United States of America we can stick our heads in the sand and say that we are the best and we don’t trust work done outside of the US. This ignores the fact, however, than many other countries are on par or even above our level of R&D spending in terms of per capita GDP. (1) We ought to be proud of the excellent work done in the United States and of the universal respect that the world at large has for US academia. This does not entitle us to narrow our view and miss out on ideas from other parts of the world.
Finally the question that’s been on my mind recently and that I want to discuss is: what is the way forward for the scientific community? What does our global community do in the fact of increased isolationism and reactionary rhetoric throughout the world? I’ll hark back to what I spoke about in previous posts: we need to increase scientific outreach and to help improve public scientific literacy. People would benefit from a better understand of the role that the scientific method plays in their everyday life. They can observe the world around them, make hypotheses about it, test their hypotheses, and analyze the results to come to a logical conclusion. Then, in sharing their conclusions, they will perpetuate a global scientific discourse. This requires all of us to donate our time to reaching out, to teaching the young and the old. Not because we want recognition for it, not because we are afraid of what might happen if we don’t but because we have conviction to do so!
Move forward! Find an opportunity and get involved!
Volunteer at a Children’s museum such as:
The Indianapolis Children’s Museum
The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia
The Maryland Science Center in Baltimore
Participate in Public Debates in your local municipality on science issues that are important to you!
Consider organizing a “Science Night” at a local restaurant to promote discussion!
Start a discussion club, invite people from your community to participate!
Do anything you can! Move forward!