This is part of 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, start there to get the complete contract.
In my original post about a new social contract for science and society, I didn’t go into too many practical details as to how to make these terms work for all of us. So let’s dig a little deeper into the first term of the contract I outlined…
“We, as scientists, will work diligently on understanding our physical world with respect to the problems that you, as citizens, want us to solve.”
I’ve mentioned before that scientists actually enjoy puzzling over data and unraveling the specifics about the world around us. This drives us to spend long hours analyzing results, which inevitably leads to designing the next experiment to be done. There’s always something more to know; so even though we may physically leave the lab, our thoughts remain close to our research. It’s good for society to have a small percentage of its population this obsessed over science. Society can definitely count on us to work hard for them.
However, as our persistence leads us further down the rabbit hole of discovery, scientists gradually become disconnected from society at large. The current stage of advanced scientific training places an emphasis on increasing specialization. It’s all scientists can do to keep up with the latest work in their own fields, much less the numerous other fields that comprise the scope of important societal problems. We as scientists need to spend more time thinking on a larger scale and interacting with scientists in other fields. This different perspective is worth the time investment because it will ultimately advance our own research. Common themes abound in the sciences, and sometimes the answer for a question is more obvious when it is in a different context.
Citizens also have a responsibility under this clause of the contract as well. Even though we scientists think that we are pretty good at identifying problems to work on, it also helps to have direction from those of you for whom we are working. We need you to join the conversation at the beginning of the scientific enterprise, not merely as a reaction to results and conclusions from scientific work. How do you do this?
Get to know a scientist. They’re more common than you might think. Don’t assume that you won’t understand anything about their work. Ask them explicitly how their research affects your life and start an honest conversation about relevant issues that need to be addressed.
Get involved in a non-profit organization with a mission you care about. Non-profits provide a built-in network for more information as well as a megaphone for voicing your concerns. Plus, they will use all the help they can get. The amount of participation is up to you; it can be as intensive as spearheading a fundraiser or as low-key as sending an e-mail. Speaking of sending an e-mail…
Be an active member of your democracy. The government invests billions of dollars on research every year under the premise that this research activity will yield innovations useful for Americans. How much do you know about what we are doing? The major funding agencies (NIH, USDA, NSF, and DOE) have websites that describe the program areas with their research emphases and the projects they have funded. Feel free to contact the program directors and your representatives; tell them what issues concern you the most (cancer, diabetes, energy, food safety etc.) and encourage them to support research important to you in their appropriations decisions.
Stay tuned for more posts on the other terms mentioned in the new social contract between science and society.