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Outside the Echo Chamber

posted Sep 24, 2017, 5:20 PM by Vondriska Lab

Growing up in the 1980’s, Saturday morning cartoons aside, the only television programs I was allowed to watch were Nova and National Geographic. My parents were not formally educated beyond high school, but they were solidly middle class: we had a comfortable life and they taught me to be curious and value objectivity. In short, they inadvertently taught me to think like a scientist. 

In the present day, when the average American cannot afford to purchase a new car[1], advocating for more federal spending on basic scientific research is unlikely to resonate with a large portion of the electorate. When we as scientists are lamenting how to support the next generation of investigators, our own long-term job security and whether there should be a limit on the number of grants any one person can have, spare a thought for the average American voter, whose real income has not increased since the previous millennium.[2]

That research into the fundamental basis of life is a worthy pursuit of mankind (and thus a worthy use of taxpayer money) is self-evident to the scientist and to most non-scientists in academia. This statement does not hold true for the American population as a whole. 

That it is wise to recruit the most talented people to pursue a scientific goal, regardless of what country they hail from, is uncontentious in academia. When your family or your neighbor’s family is struggling to make it paycheck to paycheck, hand wringing about being able to hire programmers or post-docs from abroad (especially if it is not commonly appreciated what a programmer or a post-doc actually does) can ring hollow.

Thus, while it is certainly true that adherence to the pure objective of increasing human knowledge must practiced within the scientific community[3],[4], this vigilance must be matched by a demonstration of the return on investment in nakedly economic and social terms to the American electorate. Scientists have the duty at once to resist commoditization of science, while also quantifying what they do and attaching value accordingly.

This is not a partisan issue—it is an economic one. Democrats and Republicans can be vocal supporters of basic science research (notable examples include Newt Gingrich, Arlen Spector, Sheldon Whitehouse and of course Al Gore) but these folks are coming from the upper middle class of income, from a highly educated portion of the population whose jobs (and whose family’s livelihood’s) are unlikely to be negatively affected by globalization. These politicians, while driven to an unknowable degree by their own altruistic convictions, are servants to their constituents. As soon as those constituents fail to see science as a priority, the politicians will stop advocating for it or risk being thrown out.

To be clear: this is not an argument that because times are tough it is acceptable to discriminate, to weaken principles or narrow the goals of scientific inquiry. Quite the opposite. Because of contemporary media balkanization, the task of publically defending the indiscriminate, objective nature of scientific inquiry has become ever more pressing. Equally critical is the need to establish in the public conscience—the way President John F. Kennedy did with his speeches about the space race—that our country’s competitiveness, its leadership role in the world, is rooted in its support of science and technology.


What is the solution? 

Connect science with the economy and national security

Various post-war factors conspired to make the United States a beacon for scientific research in the second half of the 20th century: preserving this position is critical to long term social and economic stability.[5] Because the United States is a leader with many emerging technologies, our scientists and legislators (and by proxy, the values of the American people) to a large part determine the guardrails within which entire scientific disciplines are pursued around the globe.

The fact that many ambitious and highly educated people want to train in the United States is a boon for the economy: most scientists come here already formed in their home countries, meaning that no United States taxpayer investment was required for their training. While working in the United States, they pay taxes and spend money. Any basic discoveries they make become, by way of publication and/or intellectual property, a domestic asset to recruit future talented investigators. This is a net gain for the economy and an insurance policy regarding American global leadership. 

Engage politicians (or become one)

The old adage about writing one’s congressman has some truth to it. So does the one about talking over the fence to one’s neighbor. Even better, for those so inclined, is to engage the political process directly: the US congress has a paucity of STEM doctorates currently serving, although President Obama’s administration was notable in that Secretaries of Defense and Energy held doctorates in physics.[6] The medical community has a much greater representation in federal government[7]—engagement of basic scientists in this theatre could only strengthen the institutional commitment to funding research.

Change the way students are taught

Undergraduate education is the best window, in terms of scale of impact and receptiveness in the target audience, to convey to the next generation of American citizens the manifold benefits to society from basic research. Students majoring in biology and chemistry go on to be physicians, lawyers, CEOs: we educate these students in the central dogma and the theory of evolution, why not in the economic benefits of basic research and communication of science to the general public? A goal should be to empower students of science, most of whom do not go on to be practicing scientists in academia or industry, with the quantitative data on how basic science advances the national interests. 

Improve messaging through federal funding agencies, NGOs and academic institutions

Governmental funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation must answer to Congress. The scientists and administrators at the NIH and NSF deal on a daily basis with how to justify to the Congress (and thus to the public) how tax dollars are spent. How can this channel of communication be improved, more tightly linking basic research to job creation, intellectual property and GDP? The NIH in particular has pursued initiatives over the past few years aimed at better quantification and accountability for federal grant dollars—grant recipients need to go further in aiding this objective. So too with non-governmental organizations and our own home institutions, along with stakeholders to whom they answer: that medical breakthroughs and technological leaps arise from studying fundamental processes needs to be continually restated, in language that governmental and NGO leadership can wield to constituents. The instinct of many institutions to foster cross departmental research teams focused on disease areas is wise—but these efforts must be firmly rooted in a public relations campaign to explain what basic research is, and that if we do not have it, there will be nothing to translate to the clinic.

Engage non-science media

The modern technological ecosystem has led us to take for granted the continual appearance—like care packages from a more advanced civilization—of new devices, services and tools. But this complacency belies the connection between government funding on the front end and academic/private sector R&D, new start-ups and intellectual property on the back end. This connection needs to be clearly articulated to the public, emphasizing not only the high profile technological innovations that lead to things like iPhones and electric cars, but also the less headline-grabbing small business innovations that arise for basic research in universities or private companies. Individual disciplines have begun to recognize the need to measure the contribution that public funding of basic research delivers to society[8]—these quantitative data need to be articulated to the non-science public. As has been recognized, it is imperative that this dialog with the public eschews hyperbole: we are not to become salesmen, but rather, responsible stewards of public investment and honest communicators of the resulting benefits to society. 

I imagine that the idea of tying fundamental research to pedestrian concerns like jobs, the economy and national security is distasteful to many scientists. So be it. It matters not how pure the scientist’s motives are for the use of public funds—we cannot expect the public to tacitly agree to support such endeavors indefinitely. Communicating directly to the public the return on investment from basic science is every scientist’s responsibility.   



[1] https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/trump-dynasty-luttwak/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Household_income_in_the_United_States

[3] Michele Pagano. Nature. 2017; 547:381; PMID: 28748949

[4] William G. Kaelin. Nature. 2017;545:387; PMID: 28541345

[5] Reif L.R. Foreign Affairs. May/June 2017.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_politicians_with_doctorates

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physicians_in_the_United_States_Congress

[8] Hill, JA et al. Circulation Research. 2017. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.029343; PMID: 28684531

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