What scientists want from you: A New Social Contract

UPDATE: I turned this into a series of posts describing science in terms of a new social contract with clauses and expectations of both scientists and society. The links for all of the posts so far can be found on the ‘highlights’ page. So if you are interested, click there to get the complete contract.


As much as I love being a scientist and telling others about its virtues, I understand that not everyone else in the world can be a full-time employed scientist. Hey, a lot of us that describe ourselves as scientists can’t be employed full-time as scientists, but that is a subject for another day. When we talk about how great science is and spout off minute details about the world, we aren’t really trying to convert everyone else to professional scientists. Here’s what we really want…

We do hope to turn you into a scientist in your everyday life. You make numerous decisions in your daily life, some more important than others. There will always be a handful of deeply personal decisions that you will make purely based on emotion or intuition by ‘going with your gut.’ However, most of your daily decisions involve data that you should be analyzing more like a scientist and less like a psychic. This means finding real objective data and not just clever marketing and not giving undue weight to dramatic outliers. Each time you do this a scientist dies (just a little on the inside). Some rather controversial example issues include vaccinations or anything related to what people eat. Complex issues are often painted as only having two mutually exclusive sides when, in fact, there are multiple facets that must be analyzed. We implore you to rationally evaluate your choices and make informed decisions especially as it concerns issues that become a matter of law in our democracy.

We want you to listen to us about our research. We’ve spent years working in a particular research area, memorizing its details, and puzzling over future applications or consequences. Society has a collective wealth of information because of this specialization. Do you really want to keep all of the biochemical and biophysical details of photosynthesis in your head? Neither do I, though I have a higher tolerance for it than you do. It’s no small effort, but someone has to do it. When a scientist is trying to tell you something about how their research will have consequences on your life, listen carefully and take it seriously. We’ve worked too hard to get that information for you to have you seemingly throw it out with yesterday’s junk mail. Plus, you as a taxpayer have likely paid for that research, so get your money’s worth.

We want to be valued. In theory, ‘scientist’ is a well-respected profession. In practice, the above-mentioned issues degrade our value. Beyond this, there are a myriad of issues related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) professional training and employment opportunities or, more precisely, deficiencies therein. Generally speaking, the public does a good job at paying lip service to the importance of science, but this is not typically followed by a complementary economic investment. This includes expenditures at both the larger research level and individual scientist’s salaries. At some point, we scientists should be eating Ramen noodles only because we choose to not because we have to.

So, I am proposing we draw up a new social contract between scientists and the public. Oh, you didn’t know there was one before? Well, there was. A poorly articulated one that left both sides disappointed and frustrated with one another. Non-scientists are still waiting impatiently for science to deliver their hover cars, jet packs and other Jetsonian amenities. Why haven’t we won the war on cancer or found a cheaper sustainable energy source? Wasn’t someone somewhere supposed to be working on that? At the same time, scientists are frustrated that the public seems to vilify science. New information is ignored or met with irrational skepticism or accusations that ‘it’s all about making money.’ Clearly, our relationship is dysfunctional; we do not understand one another’s aims, expectations and limitations. Our relationship will always be codependent, but it doesn’t have to be such a mess.

So let’s start fresh. We, as scientists, will work diligently on understanding our physical world with respect to the problems that you, as citizens, want us to solve, but also give us some leeway on basic research because some practical innovations come about fortuitously. You will understand that this joint endeavor requires a long-term investment of significant resources- time, money, and people; we will be accountable for those resources. We will do a better job communicating status updates to you, but please have patience with us because this is difficult work, both the actual science part and the communication part. We also need to work together to raise the level of scientific literacy for all people to make this two-way communication work. This means we will do a better job translating the science information, and you will up your game when it comes to processing that information. Ignorance is not bliss; in this contract, it’s not even an option. Finally, we will provide you with an arsenal of possible solutions; then both of us will have a respectful dialogue about how to proceed. As other issues arise and new information and technology become available, let’s re-evaluate our possible solutions and strategies.

Everyone is invested. Everyone has a responsibility. Everyone benefits.

Johnna

Update 6/29/13: The idea of having a social contract between scientists and non-scientists is not a new one. In my recent reading of an article on scientific outreach, I came across this reference by Jane Lubchencho describing a social contract for environmental science from 1998. These common themes have only become increasingly more important since that article was written. We are now at a point where we must have an explicit conversation about our social contract or it is all for naught.

I tried to keep the contract terms very concise in this original post, but I plan on using a series of future posts to elaborate on each of the stipulations mentioned above and discuss how to make this work. Stay tuned.

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10 thoughts on “What scientists want from you: A New Social Contract

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