Science Policy Leaders Hold On To Myths To Our Detriment

A few recent columns from senior scientific people on both sides of the Atlantic help remind me that while we may recognize some science (or science policy) myths, they persist.  Unfortunately, the persistence of these myths has not prompted a push to find the next best thing (or next best things) to replace them.  While that can happen with scientific hypotheses that are a little bit off, it seems to be a bit more difficult for the myths.

Roger Highfield, director of external affairs at the Science Museum (in London), recently gave a lecture at the Royal Society about why science still needs its heroes.  He appears to suffer a lack of imagination.  He suggests that having scientific heroes, rather than the group efforts that increasingly reflect the realities of scientific practice, is the best way to inspire the next generation and engage with the public.  Highfield is implying that there can be no inspiring vision of science without the heroic stories of individuals.

Highfield’s perspective, at least where public engagement is concerned, is more than a little elitist.  If the only stories of science presented to the public are of the ‘heroes’ than we don’t present the full spectrum of scientific experiences.  And if we want the public to be more engaged with science and scientists, relating to them through the science and scientists they engage with on a regular basis makes much more sense to me.  If Highfield can’t find the wonder and excitement in the everyday, my sympathies.  But like Rebekah Higgitt, I think we should keep trying to communicate the complexities of science.

It’s not much better over on this side of the Atlantic.  After the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, Ahmed Zewail – Nobel Laureate and current member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) – wrote an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times (and republished elsewhere) to champion the cause of ‘curiosity-driven’ research.  Had the rover been named something else, I think Zewail’s faulty logic would have been wholly transparent.  Citing a mission with a very specific objective as a reason to encourage funding for blue-sky, curiosity-driven, fundamental, basic research strikes me as at least a bit cynical, if not misguided.  And, as Roger Pielke, Jr. and others can tell you, this construction of basic research is not as, well, fundamental as some seem to think.

But the pressure to retain the language remains.  National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins recently had an editorial in Science (free registration required for full text) trying to assure people that the NIH was not abandoning basic research. The editorial was prompted by concerns over the new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), a part of NIH that is focused not on basic research, but on translating the outputs of that research into clinical results.

While many conservatives prefer federal funding for basic research because it fits their preferred economic perspective on the world (government funds only what the private sector will not), the scientific advocacy community was at least as concerned.  Whether it’s because the advocates think that’s how scientific research works, or that they operate under that assumption because they believe government funders do, the denial of the complexity of practice continues to frustrate.

The persistence of these myths suggests to me that the foundations of post-World War II American science policy continue to disintegrate.  Enough people in the field are seeing this happen, but they apparently lack the power to persuade (or displace) the advocates that continue to operate by the old rules.  When the new budgetary normal settles, science will likely suffer.  And we could have been trying to change it.  But we remain stuck with our myths.  Good stories, but no longer rules to live by.

Here’s to more heresy.

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