Monday, January 24, 2011

Why scientists should care about scientific literacy among the general public

Our nation faces the daunting, politically messy task of guiding our country through the shoals of decreasingly available natural resources, sometimes conflicting corporate interests, responsibility for environmental stewardship, and the need to prepare the workforce for a future that will depend on scientific understanding.  In the face of these challenges, we need scientists to take up the challenge and talk to friends, neighbors, legislators, coffee baristas, etc., about what they do and why.  

Make no mistake:  Science is important!  Science provides the foundation for improving and maintaining human health, expanding technological innovation, and understanding humanity’s impact on the environment, with broad implications for domestic and international policy debates.  Science provides the tools for developing new drugs, quantifying with increasing accuracy the details of the natural world and for discovering and evaluating new technologies to secure our energy future.  

Unfortunately, there is a lack of understanding of the science behind critical decisions we face, and scientists have been reluctant to engage in national debates where they are sorely needed, leaving a void that has been exploited to the detriment of, most notably, the environment, human health, and our secure energy future.  They are at times rightly criticized for being poor diplomats of their field for the lay audience (Harold Varmus’ recent political biography, The Art and Politics of Science, is a worthy counterexample), but research is not a part-time job and with financial support for basic science becoming more competitive, scientists are under increasing financial pressure to keep their labs running.  Yet the need for scientist-politicians is more acute in these hyperpartisan times where careful, verifiable inquiry is undermined in a 24 hour news cycle by opponents who know (or should know) better.  Science, dismissed as uninteresting or incomprehensible, is surely hurt by this exchange, but so are the public, the economy, and our environment.  

It is more important than ever that scientists add their voice and experience in matters where science matters.  As Victor Laslo said in Casablanca, "[Come] back to the fight.  This time I know our side will win." 

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