I have been wondering for some time: How can I make the biggest impact to science literacy (This was a start). However, I know I can do more.
I received my weekly email of the Table of Contents for one of my favorite journals PNAS today and read over the titles of the articles. As usual, I’m reading them and saying in my head, blah blah blah because I am looking for certain keywords to identify the article as something I would be interested in (like chemotaxis or second messenger cyclic-di-GMP). Then it occurred to me,
I’m trained to know what these titles mean and which ones would interest me. What about everyone else in America? To them it’s just blah blah blah without the training to know if they would like the research or not.
A majority of published scientific research is federally funded by taxpayer dollars in the U.S. yet most taxpayers have no idea why the research findings from these funds are important or how they contribute to a better society.
What if the article abstracts, laced with big words and jargon, were rewritten to a level where most people could understand; an abstract 2.o if you will? By reading a short summary of the work, anyone who wanted to know could actually understand the problem studied and the results. Maybe more importantly, the reader would not have to rely on interpretations of the research from popular media sources that have higher priorities than educating the public.
I will have more on this concept in the near future. Please let me know what you think and add comments and suggestions.
The Bush Report as it is known was proposed before the end of World War II so specifics were not the objective of this particular report. This report was more ideological than would be delivered to the White House any other time in history. Here are some more quotes from the report (bold added by me to emphasize important parts).
The Importance of Basic Research
Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws. This general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them. The function of applied research is to provide such complete answers. The scientist doing basic research may not be at all interested in the practical applications of his work, yet the further progress of industrial development would eventually stagnate if basic scientific research were long neglected.
From my time on the inside (assisting DOE’s Office of Science), I know one of the highest priorities of our government is to move the knowledge discovered through basic research into applications that are attractive to industry. The Executive Branch understands that future economic growth is intimately tied to research being conducted today. Any short-sighted moves by the Legislative Branch to make our R&D funding stagnate will have grave consequences for the country in the future when innovations attractive to industry come from overseas.
This is reiterated later in the report section:
A nation which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill.
What are we to do when industry looks to capitalize on innovations from countries such as India or China? Please don’t make me say I told you so…
Today, my wife and almost five-year-old left for a well-deserved vacation and by extension I’m on vacation until they return. So, what did I do first after they left? I watched a great video that I had in my ‘Watch Later’ list. It was a back-and-forth between funnyman Stephen Colbert and Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson. Dr. Tyson raised a great and insightful point about the state of science and the lack of science literacy in America.
As an adjunct professor in health science research, my first priority is to increase the general science literacy of my students so they can make more knowledgable decisions based upon logic and not based upon the opinions of others. One of the first lectures I give elaborates on what exactly science is and is not. Science is not magic. In fact, science is the opposite of magic. Unfortunately, most of the breakthroughs and discoveries are not easily or not well communicated to the public. This gap in knowledge between the scientists and the public leads to a misunderstanding of what the scientists are actually doing. When the new knowledge goes over the heads of the people it makes science a mystery. Thus, to most of the general public, science is not just a mystery, it might as well be magical.
This gap between the truth about science and the perception of science creates a sense of mistrust. We need to do better.
A major reason Science does not have a more prevalent position in our society and government is the lack of understanding of what Science really is and can do for us. So, I have decided to use this blog as a starting point to hopefully explain some of the crazy, wild, innovative, creative, and science-fictionesque stories coming out about current research. I hope this will get more of the public excited or, at least, interested in what science and health research can accomplish.
During the current political environment, R&D budgets are being reduced or frozen. For example, the budget for NIH, the largest public funding program in the U.S., is lower than it was in 2003. The “Plan B” outlined in the Budget Control Act of 2011 (aka sequester) plus the current 6-month continuing resolution cycle employed by Congress has all in the research community scared; not only for their own jobs but also for what it is saying to our citizens and people across the globe. Our ‘leaders’ in Washington no longer consider basic research a priority. In essence, the ‘leaders’ are saying, “We are too worried about our re-election bids to see the big picture and the catastrophic consequences of our short-sightedness”.
The innovations and technologies directly or indirectly resulting from basic research have brought invaluable prosperity to this country and has enriched the lives of each of us directly. Cuts to research are the essentially the same as cuts to flesh. Eventually, the infection at the cut spreads to the entire body. The cut doesn’t suffer, the body suffers. John Donne said it well in his passage, Meditation 17 Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
The bell is tolling in the U.S. and has for some time now. We all suffer when ignoring our research community.
Matt Russell, Ph.D.