Science is civilization’s greatest accomplishment. The purest expression of curiosity.
Curiosity and inquisitiveness are the heart of the human psyche and the driving forces of innovation.
Americans continually tout our success in science as the source of the great economic, technological and social advantages of living in the United States. It’s among Americans’ greatest points of pride.
However, Americans also seem perversely proud of their anti-intellectualism. The pursuit of science and knowledge for its own sake is often demeaned and derided.
Intelligence, inquisitiveness and fascination with things intellectual (math, computers, engineering, etc.) is seen more and more as ‘freakishness’, or peculiarity. Almost a curse rather than a gift.
Consider how much our culture vilifies, makes fun of, or outright ignores science and scientists.
A U.S. Senator, William Proxmire, created his “Golden Fleece Award” for scientists engaged in pure research that he believed had no practical value.
Children who are considered “gifted students” by educators and informed adults are teased and ostracized as “nerds”, “geeks”, weirdoes, and worse by their fellow students.
Some adults call scientists and scholars “heathens” or heretics. Religionists deny the reality of evolution or geologic time. Calling someone an “Einstein” or a “Rocket Scientist” is an almost universal insult.
In a country where the comment, “Whatsa matter? Can’tcha read?” used to be among the highest insults, it’s now an actual question. Perhaps worse, even ’intellectuals‘ are now shunning science.
Movies and TV shows rarely (if ever) show scientists in an unambiguously positive light. “Mad Scientist” has become a cultural touchstone for any scientific exploration into the more esoteric or complex areas of cosmology or biology, or even technology.
In popular media, it seems that the best that scientists can do is be well-intentioned and naïve bunglers who cause some sort of unintended disaster or catastrophe.
There’s no doubt about it: Science, scientists and general intellectualism definitely need better PR.
The general public’s distorted perception of science and research notwithstanding, science is really a grueling, frustrating, failure-filled enterprise with rare “Eureka” moments. The reality, as Thomas Edison so rightfully put it, is, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”
In return for that, scientists are typically rewarded with long hours, comparatively low pay, and a constant desperate search for financing of their work.
A postdoctoral researcher is usually paid less than a “Big Box” retail Manager-In-Training with a BBA. In contrast to business, finance or law (in which a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree will usually more than suffice), pursuing a scientific career requires a Ph.D. degree, followed by years of postdoctoral training. Only 20% of the most successful (and lucky) ones advance to the ultimate elite group: The Faculty. But a faculty has to constantly write grants in order to seek tenure and support for his or her research.
As a result, science in America has been suffering since 1998, when science and engineering degrees peaked at 27,300. By 2002, it had fallen to 24,500. In America and across the world, fewer and fewer college students – our best, most promising young minds – are unwilling to indulge their inquisitiveness and pursue their curiosity, because the effort is disproportionately great when compared to the potential rewards. Add the social stigmas that become attached to “Ivory Tower academics”, “impractical intellectuals” and “heretical, atheist scientists”, and pursuing a different line of work becomes almost a no-brainer for many.
There’s no doubt about it: Science demands high intellectual ability and extreme hard work and dedication. Deficiency in either will guarantee failure.
Thomas Edison invented
electricity[Revised 2/17/11. Thanks, Pete!] the electric light bulb and established the first electrical power grid, now considered a basic building block of civilization. James Watson discovered double strand DNA, the building block of all living organisms, and a tool used increasingly to understand and fight disease.
Our civilization would be impossible without electricity. Our understanding of human beings and diseases would remain almost medieval without our knowledge of the DNA at their roots.
Just as science has transformed our society in every way imaginable, our future depends on science in unimaginable ways. Just as the discovery of DNA made it possible to identify the changes underlying many diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, the cure depends on further cutting-edge research by current and future scientists.
The two summers that the author of this essay worked on Alzheimer’s disease at Baylor College of Medicine taught him how little we know about it. His three years of volunteer work at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center taught him firsthand about the emotional and physical tolls cancer exacts on patients and their loved ones.
Science is a necessity, not a luxury; but when science’s efforts to know the unknowns become too difficult, too unprofitable, too unpopular, then even all but the most devout seekers of knowledge become discouraged, and humanity suffers.
Science is what civilization is about. We need science today more than ever. We must not let ignorance, indifference and apathy win the day.