Category Archives: social contract

Under the Influence (of Comments)

I’ve mentioned before that the general public needs to be more scientifically literate and engaged with science related issues.* Well, here’s some interesting news about science news… is your head spinning yet? It may be no surprise to you that scientists like to objectively evaluate everything- even how science is communicated to the general public. Someone from the science side or the journalism side is keeping track of how breaking discoveries are communicated and perceived. As it turns out there is a new wrinkle in the science communication arena- specifically with the ubiquitous reader comments that follow every online news article.**

Here’s what a recent study found: You are under the influence of other reader’s comments. Your perception of a news article’s validity and trustworthiness can be influenced by what other random people post at the bottom of the page.

Let that sink in a minute.

Just when you think you have been as objective as possible and trying to minimize your bias and tease apart the bias emanating from any given news article, you scroll down a few more inches and BAM! more bias.

I’m not gonna lie to you- I’m a big time comments section lurker.*** I rarely post anything, but I somewhat enjoy reading through the comments sections at the bottom of articles. Some of them are quite amusing. Some of them just make me sigh and shake my head. For me, it’s another level of data to process, a way to gauge how the most vocal members of society feel about certain issues, a way to get exposure to other perspectives much different than mine. Now, I wonder how much subconscious influence I was letting anonymous reviewers have over me.

In the context of social commentary on the behavior of Miley Cyrus at the VMAs or who was wearing what and how well on the Emmy’s red carpet, this new insight on commenter influence doesn’t matter much. However, when it comes to ‘important stuff’ that shapes public opinion and influences national policy, the stakes are higher.

Check out this in depth analysis of the implications to science communication by Matt Shipman at Scilogs. As scientists, we want to engage with the public about our research and its implications. On-line news, blogs and social networks are convenient platforms for mass broadcasting what we think is important. Always up for debate and critique, scientists generally welcome commentary. However, these results mean that any random person in cyberspace with who-knows-what-probably-none credentials will influence how readers perceive the news as truthful or important.

So this new finding puts us in an uncomfortable position: (Presumably) the author of a science news article has carefully crafted an informative and well-referenced piece with solid supporting evidence that should adequately convey new information to the reader so that they can come to their own decisions based on the data therein. (I’m sure the author tried to contain his/her own bias and was not writing an overly-opinion-based piece.) All of that work can be undone by anonymous internet trolls**** that comment with impunity.

What can be done? Readers, just try to be aware of the influence of the comments section on your opinions of on-line news or skip reading them altogether. Commenters, comment judiciously. Please try to add something to the conversation and be honest about your biases. If you are Popular Science, you shut down comments on on-line news articles across the board. Click here to read their justification for the policy shift.

As for me, I will leave the comments section open. For any of you brave enough to de-lurk***** yourselves, I think there is currently more value in discussion than harm from undue influence.


* Again, check out the Resources page for links to science news sources.

** In case you have been living under a rock for the past several years, anyone with an internet connection and a keyboard can post their unsolicited thoughts for the world to see at the bottom of a news article. But you already knew that since you were savvy enough to find an internet connection and stumble upon my blog.

*** Lurker (n): the official internet term for one who reads lots of internet content, but never engages in the comments section of an article, a blog, etc.

**** Troll (n): the official internet term for one who posts ugly, offensive, obnoxious, and possibly-unrelated comments on news articles for the purposes of shock value and baiting other commenters in pointless debates that general have little to do with the content of the original article.

***** De-lurk (v): the internet term for stepping out of the shadows of lurker status and into the realm of insightful commenter. (Please don’t de-lurk into a troll).

Science Literacy

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 scientific literacy clause…

“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.”

Having fundamental science knowledge

Fundamentally, science is a process of learning about the world around us.  Our new contract requires everyone to know the basis of the scientific method (observation, question, hypothesis, experiment, results and conclusion). It’s not always so clear. Check out this post for how it really works. Not everyone will be doing molecular biology, but the method is valid for answering questions as diverse as: What genes contribute to plant drought tolerance? Does that water leaking into my garage mean I need a new washing machine? Netflix isn’t loading- is it a problem with my cable connection, wireless router, or PS3? So, I would encourage you to use the scientific method to answer the questions nagging you in your daily life.

However, science is most often taught as a category of facts related to certain physical subjects (biology, physics, environmental science, chemistry etc). These are merely the results and conclusions of the practice of science as it was applied to specific questions. This post isn’t about new common core standards or any other benchmarks for evaluation. Not everyone needs to be an expert, but a little knowledge about a broad range of subjects goes a long way. Challenge yourself to learn something new every day, which brings me to my next point…

Finding and evaluating science news

We live in an information age. While having a little bit of knowledge on a broad range of subjects is great, you will always need to find additional information. I’ve mentioned before that the science community will be working harder to communicate our work more effectively. So take advantage of these new avenues for learning more about science. I’ve listed some links for science news resources on my resources page.* If you are hunting for something more specific, then your first stop is probably to do a Google search. How do you know which links in the results list will give you trustworthy information? The top hits will probably be to Wikipedia entries. I recommend starting there because they generally provide a general sense of the subject and provide links to primary information. These entries will at least give you an overview of the subject and a better sense of what other words you may want to use in a more refined search. Other links to scientific literature in PubMed or other scientific journal sites take you to the primary peer-reviewed literature. These are information-rich, but often difficult reading for the average member of the general public. Try reading it any way. Abstracts are always publicly available, but you may run into pay walls for full text access. Other links to webpages hosted on university, non-profit or government websites are generally reliable, but may vary in their understandability. I’ve also encouraged you to know scientists in your real life and have conversations with them about their work. Don’t be intimidated. Ask them questions. Make them continue to answer and explain until you understand. Repeat as necessary.

Our information age means that you will always have more information available to you that you will care to process. The real task is paring down all of that information to get to the answer for question that you actually have and evaluating the present facts for truthfulness. There’s no easy answer. Caveat entour always!!! You must always consider the source. Who is really telling you these facts and what credibility do they have? Most importantly, follow the money. Are they trying to sell you something? The answer to this question is always yes. Many sources are literally trying to sell you something and data will be presented in the best possible light (marketing!) to get you to be their consumer. Don’t trust them. Find additional sources where others have asked the question differently or come up with slightly different answers. You may be asking yourself, “What about you, Johnna?” Well, I’ll tell you. I’m human, which means that I carry with me inherent bias based on the sum total of my life experiences. As much as I try to suppress bias it in my scientific life, bias is always there as part of my human experience. So consider sources that appear to be doing their best at controlling against bias or at the very least can be up front about admitting their bias. This is the most difficult part of assembling truth from facts.

UPDATE: Check out this It’s OK to be Smart video by @JTOTHEIZZOE on How to Read Science News

UPDATE: Here’s another great link for evaluating scientific literature and another.

Actively participating in important decisions

As a member of our society, you must make all kinds of decisions. These can be as ordinary as what to eat, what not to eat or what car or computer to buy. Sometimes these involve evaluating scientific information. Our recent discussion in GMOs has highlighted this. Should you avoid the currently available GMOs in your diet and how do you do this? You may need more information on a medical condition, procedure or treatment option. These are just examples and there are many more, but they highlight the need to actively process more scientific information to make decisions relevant to your daily life.

Scientists are also seeking more engagement from the public on how science is done because ultimately you control important factors related to our research. Fundamentally, basic research and publicly-funded research is performed at the behest of, well, the public. Sure, it’s fun for us scientists, but ultimately we’re working for you. You have the power to guide research directions and the market of scientifically-based products. So, please let scientists know and let your elected representatives know about science-related issues that are important to you. What research is important to you? Is someone working on it? Do they have enough funding? How should we be allocating portions of the budget for research and education? What science-related products or services need more or less oversight and regulation? These are all important decisions that you need to be involved in. Choices will be made whether or not you are involved, so you need to voice your opinion them.


* I distinctly remember assigning homework related to that original post on finding science news and making science more important than Bieber. Remember, I can tell which of my links get clicked (no, not which of you personally clicked on which links). Well, you all failed miserably. Horrible click counts that day. Here’s your chance to repeat the assignment.

UPDATE: Check out the retraction of info from this post as a warning for being critical of even seemingly reputable on-line sources. Always follow the data down to a primary source!

Science is hard

contractThis 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 this one…

“but please have patience with us because this is difficult work, both the actual science part and the communication part.”

Science is hard. There’s just no other way to put it. As scientists, our curiosity drives us to pursue the next experiment and ponder over the minutiae of our physical world, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy road. In the sciences, getting to the PhD level is seen as a hurdle that must be overcome to acquire independence. It takes a lot of discipline and endurance to achieve these letters. There is a whole body of information about their research area that students must learn. Students of science must also learn to tame their curiosity somewhat so that it conforms to the scientific method. (Remember, experiments should always include controls.) Yet, after all of the effort to get to this point, scientists (yes, even PhDs) aren’t really standing on a mountaintop looking down on the world with a new vantage point. Instead, we find ourselves at the edge of an abyss. We have reached the end of human knowledge. There is no more solid ground of verified truth in front of us- only a great magnitude of darkness that is the unknown.

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” ― Albert Einstein

“Basic research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I am doing.” ― Wernher Von Braun

So, like any worthy explorers, we look back briefly at prior research and then we engineer our course forward. We step out over the abyss with our hypotheses as abutments and experimental methods as piers and piles. Before falling too far off into the darkness of the unknown, our results appear, catching us and forming girders. These support our final conclusions thereby solidifying the bridge segment we have constructed from the edge of human knowledge. The process only appears rigorous and solid, but we are actually working in a void where imagination is required to project substance beyond our current reality. In short, this is an elaborate way of saying we don’t always know how our bridges will manifest themselves and where they may take us. All the while, we as scientists are struggling against the downward gravitational pull of the unknown.

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” ― Albert Einstein

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” ― Niels Bohr

“Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” ― Jules Verne, A Journey to the Center of the Earth

As the quotes imply above, this journey/engineering project is filled with mistakes. Some of them are useful in their results; others only in what they teach us to avoid in the future. No, really. Maybe you should check out some of the catastrophes, mishaps and more that scientists have been confessing on social media this week under #sciconfessions*. The bluntness of some of these confessions would lead one to believe a new gospel was afoot telling us all to repent on Twitter for the time is near. I guess the weight of these research sins has finally made us fear being held accountable for them. I doubt it is as spiritual as that, but confession is cleansing and the time has come for scientists to be seen as real humans again.

Maybe from the outside, scientists appear more perfect, more like those conquerors of mountaintops. Some of us would even like this to be the truth and put up elaborate facades of perfectionism in order to perpetuate this myth (or to get tenure).** The reality is that we are merely stumbling forward like newborn foals; it isn’t very pretty, but it is still an exhilarating accomplisment. So please, be patient with scientists because it is difficult work in and of itself to pursue this adventure, and even more so, to aptly narrate it for everyone else.***


* My favorite sciconfession (From @JellyCat23): Be very careful with surgical super glue. It’s easier than you think to attach a mouse to yourself. #sciconfessions #CloseCall #HeWasFine

** For other perspectives on the illusion of perfectionism, its ugly step-sister ‘imposter syndrome’ and their potentially debilitating consequences, check out these posts by other bloggers:

*** I’ve already mentioned that we scientists will still be working to get better with those narratives too.


Bridge engineering terms:

Communicating Science Updates


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 scientific status updates…

“We will do a better job communicating status updates to you… “

A couple of my posts last week should have given you some insights as to how scientists communicate with one another and new variations on that theme. In theory, scientists should be writing their results clearly enough for everyone to understand, but in practice this doesn’t happen. Most scientific literature is readily understandable to only a small audience of scientists within the same field; therefore, these publications provide a poor venue for communicating important scientific findings to the general public (not to mention the fact that it is prohibitively expensive to access unless you are an institutional subscriber).  This impasse has existed for many years with scientists on one side talking with one another thinking they are doing an adequate job of putting their research in the public domain and with the general public on the other side wondering what scientists could possibly be doing in their ivory towers only venturing out on seldom occasions to spout off numbers foretelling our impending doom from climate change, food shortages, rainforest destruction, and flu pandemics*. This situation has festered to the point where neither scientists nor the general public really want to talk with one another and lack the skills to meaningfully communicate. The real shame is the fact that science now more than ever permeates all aspects of our lives. More people should be aware of current research and what it means for their future. I’m sure that is common ground we can all agree on.

The publication of peer-reviewed research in scholarly journals will continue to be the most respected way scientists communicate with one another, but where does that leave everyone else?  Out in the cold. How do scientists plan on communicating with the general public?

Fortunately, the information age and the advent of social media are peaking just as the science and society communication rift is in need of a bridge. If there is a technology available to immediately disseminate such mundane details as what Justin Bieber ate for breakfast this morning to 40 million plus people around the globe, I think we could find a way to harness that power for the sake of knowledge. Yes, scientists should be on Facebook, LinkedIN, and Twitter– it’s where the people are!** These social media outlets allow for direct connections with the public and real time release of information. Scientists should see the potential of these new communication tools and not merely the frivolous ways in which they are currently being used. Blogging isn’t just for parental rants and raves, but a way to curate and/or create new content available to anyone with an internet connection. These articles further describe the professional potential of various online platforms and how scientists can use them to their advantage.

While scientists should always strive to be good communicators of their work, they can’t do it alone. The need for effective science communication has also birthed a new hybrid- the science communicator. Science communicators usually have extensive scientific training (formal degrees or acquired via association with scientists for numerous assignments), but they also have formal communications training (mass communication, journalism, writing). They are essentially translators. Their job is not to ‘dumb it down,’ but to throw out all of the confusing jargon and speak about science in language normal humans can understand. They place highly specialized research in universally meaningful contexts. They explicitly connect science on a personal level to a wider audience compared to scientists.

Scientists and scientific communicators should approach the ‘communication/outreach problem’ just as they would any other research question. It should be addressed with every possible weapon in the arsenal and the latest cutting-edge techniques. Scientists should not be afraid to learn new approaches when it comes to communication and their efforts must be constantly re-evaluated for effectiveness. Oh metrics! What scientist doesn’t like numbers backing up their efforts? Investment in communication does yield dividends in other areas- better writing leads to better grant proposal reviews and publications; clearer oral communication helps with teaching. As with experimental research, scientists should be building on existing communication strategies to further their reach.

I hope that one day Science can be the new Justin Bieber*** because Science is important and everyone should know why… in real time.

Scientists, it’s time to speak up. People of Earth, prepare to have your newsfeeds filled with useful information on scientific research.****


*Yes, scientists like numbers. As much as we would  like to think that raw numbers and data are compelling for you, we are beginning to suspect that’s not the case. We will still use some numbers, but we’ll try to keep them in context and tell a story around them.

**Check out this graphic showing what happens online every 60s. Yeah, that’s where the audience is.

***No, it’s definitely not that scientists want to be pop stars- it would be entirely too dangerous for the paparazzi.

****Don’t worry there will still be plenty of room for cutesy cat pictures (some even have a science twist) and updates on how potty training is going for your friends’ kids.

References and Further Reading:

It’s all about the money: Research Spending

moneyIn yesterday’s post, I encouraged you to be an investor in scientific research. In truth, you already are through your tax dollars. I bet you’d be interested to know how much of your money we are talking about. That is the bottom-line of today’s post.

It may be no surprise to you that the U.S. government does a better job at counting and reporting things like annual corn production in every county and energy consumption from coal than it does how much money it spends. I had a much harder time tracking down current spending and budgetary numbers than I imagined. So if anyone out there accounting for government dollars has additional data or insights, please feel free to comment below. The number I found for U.S. research and development (R&D) spending across all sectors (business, government, other) was ~$400 billion dollars*. For most people, and I assume all of my blog readers, this is an enormous sum of money. But- how does it really add up in the context of all the money we generate and spend?

In the U.S., total R&D spending is just less than 3% of its GDP split among government, industry and other funding sources. Government funding represents just under a third of this number (~0.8 – 0.9% GDP). Business R&D comprises the largest chunk of this total investment with other funding agencies like universities and non-profit organizations having the smallest contribution. The worldwide average of R&D spending is ~2% GDP. Check out this article with very useful graphics comparing global spending on research. If you are interested in more data on European science spending, check out Scienceogram.


Clearly, the U.S. is above average when it comes to spending on research. Because it is also the world’s largest national economy with a ~$15.7 trillion GDP in 2012, it also spends the most money in absolute terms as well. (That’s ~$440 billion in spending across all sectors from these figures.) These numbers indicate that the U.S. is the world leader in terms of investment in scientific research. However, now is no time to sit on our laurels. South Korea and Japan are committing larger percentages of their GDPs to R&D, and China’s economy is expanding at a faster pace than that of the U.S. So, the U.S. may have to cede this position in the coming years.

The values for U.S. R&D spending indicate a greater investment and commitment to science by the business sector rather than the government. (Thanks capitalism!) The programs funded by federal money mostly sponsor basic research- fundamentally important things we should know more about, but without a clearly defined application or product. These are projects whose timescale of investment would not survive in a purely capitalistic environment favoring short-term gains. Federal funds also drive research in areas critical to the national interest- food, energy, healthcare, the environment, security. In 2012, that amounted to ~$139 billion dollars.

Do we really need to commit more federal money if we are already spending many billions of dollars each year? Yes. This was the slow and steady increase I mentioned in yesterday’s post. At the very least, we cannot go backward. The President’s budget request for the 2013 fiscal year had only a 0.2% increase in R&D funding. Research funding even across a number of separate divisions (DOE, NIH, NSF, NASA, USDA etc) represents a small portion of the federal budget. The total U.S. budget expenditures in recent years are ~$3.8 trillion dollars. We are only allocating ~3.7% of our total budget for scientific research. With this level of investment, I do not believe as a nation we are investing enough for a comfortable retirement as citizens of earth.

Check out this graphic representation of the U.S. budget for 2010 from for some perspective on how science funding ranks in importance when real dollars are on the line or here for another graphic from Scientific American for the 2009 numbers. Surely there are other places within the federal budget than could be streamlined to provide some more room for science given the potential research has to reduce costs in other areas (agriculture, energy, healthcare). Here’s how the budget breaks down for 2011 estimates:


What do these budget numbers mean for scientific progress via federally funded research? It means fewer grants are being funded. Federal agencies are reporting funding success rates of ~18 – 20%. (Anecdotal rumors within academia in recent years put these numbers much smaller.) This means only about 1 in 5 submitted proposals will receive funding. With such abysmal success rates for funding, it means ~80% of proposed projects don’t get done. Of course, a percentage of those proposals may have significant flaws, but even accounting for some of those, that’s still a large amount of research left waiting on the lab bench.

While we may be the highest funded system in the world, these numbers are still disturbing. They mean that as a nation we are still only investing a small percentage of ourselves in innovation for the future. It means that our words and our actions are not congruent. It means that we will invest in scientists up to a certain point, but not give them the resources they need to conduct their independent projects. We can do better than this. Before the accountants and economists start coming out of the woodwork to bludgeon my proposal, let’s figure out a way to increase the research funding significantly and steadily in the coming years. Instead of fighting over why we find ourselves in our current state of financial affairs, let’s work toward the future. Even if we were to increase the research spending portion of the budget by 30%, it would still total a very small slice of the federal fiscal pie (less than 5%).**


*PPP$ = US dollars at purchasing power parity (PPP$) for the latest year available.

“PPP$ better reflects the real value of investments and allows for more comparability by eliminating differences in price levels among countries. Essentially, this means that a sum of money converted into US dollars at PPP rates will buy the same basket of goods and services in all countries. Source: UNESCO”

**I realize the number representing the 100% for our federal budget is more controversial because of deficits. Every item we increase allocations for now means borrowing money with interest we must pay later. When it comes to science, I still think it’s worth it.

Reference Links

Science: A Long-term Investment


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 on the investment clause…

“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. “

Some science explicitly falls under a traditional investment model. In industry, the research and development sectors of companies offering science-based innovation follow certain principles in order to stay in business. These companies must focus their scientific efforts with their customers, shareholders and bottom-lines ever in view. In many ways, basic research should adhere to the same guiding principles, but the timescale is significantly different, the ‘company’ is less organized, and the ‘products’ seem more nebulous. Despite these differences, basic scientific research should also be treated like an investment.

While some innovations occur in a flash and their applications take hold quickly, the true benefits of science occur in smaller increments over much longer timescales. The problems of chronic diseases affecting human health, sustainable energy supply, adequate agricultural production, and ecological protection are large problems. The solutions to these issues will not come overnight; the transformative science required to address these issues takes many people working together for decades. This is in stark contrast to the rest of society in this age of instant information, fleeting media cycles with their thirty-second sound bites and short political and electoral cycles. These diametrically opposed trends must find reconciliation with one another for meaningful scientific progress to occur over the coming years. Science is getting faster and more applicable, but society must also be patient and less fickle with their support.

Just like a monetary account, investment that is steady over a long duration offers the best returns. There’s always a chance you could go to the casino with $5K the week before you retire and win enough to cover your living expenses for another twenty years, but the probability is low*. A much better strategy would be to add to an account at a slow and steady pace and let compounding interest work in your favor. Science is much the same way. Society is facing problems with finite time restrictions (I’ve mentioned previously that scientists have been keeping track of some worrying numbers). To more effectively solve the problems or at least offer more attractive solutions, a steady investment in science must be made before problems are imminent. Eventually, it will not matter how much money and how many people you throw at a problem because the buzzer has already gone off. Game over. Thanks for playing.

Like any good long-term investment portfolio, science needs to be diversified. We need scientists working in all fields (even on things you may find absurd, as mentioned previously). There should be a good mix of projects that are currently giving high returns as well as those projects that are consistently yielding reliable, smaller returns in areas that will always be beneficial. Your role as an investor is to make sure that your brokerage companies are providing you with diversified investment strategies. As daunting as it may seem to have a one-on-one conversation with your financial advisor, it usually works to your benefit. In the same way, feel free to make your voice heard to your elected officials, program managers or non-profit funding boards that control the directions of your monetary contributions to the scientific research enterprise. Many of us need to make decisions today to make sure we will have enough money for life after retirement. The decisions affecting your science portfolio are no different, and, as mentioned above, the deadlines are looming; let’s make sure we have invested enough in science to ‘retire’ in peace.

The ‘scientific system’ we have now is performing well at training scientists in diverse fields at high levels. Let’s just make sure that this resource is being used to its fullest potential. Some scientists transition out of this training system into the industry sector where their employment and their research are intimately linked to providing customers with useful products and services. Other scientists stay closer to basic research within academia and governmental labs, which are dependent upon federal and state funding. The health of the broader economy affects all of these scientists, but because basic research is inherently further-removed from everyday applications, it ends up on the chopping block when cuts must be made.

Do not think that this post is just a request for a blank check for basic scientific research. More money will not magically fix the problems of the science enterprise, but it should be approached as an investment and instead of a charity. We expect to be held accountable. Scientists must submit financial reports as to where their research money is being spent- salaries, supplies, equipment, travel, etc. are all documented for each award. Our publications, websites, outreach projects and grant proposals comprise our prospectus to you, our potential investors. The federal granting agencies and non-profit organizations function equivalently to major trading brokerage firms in the financial sector. They do the research on us and make informed decisions about investing your money. The more recent attempts at crowd-funding science with direct investors represent the do-it-yourself trading programs in this analogy. Finally, like any financial investment, scientists would ultimately like to pay dividends to their shareholders. Our discoveries should lead to technologies that will improve your daily life.

Ideals always look good in print, but in practice things seem to fall apart. It’s the difference between stating in conversation that you support Cause ABC compared to actually donating your money or volunteering your time for it. As far as science goes, the current system is doing a good job creating a pipeline full of capable hands and creative minds. Time is running dangerously short for some of our critical societal problems, and that is a variable we can do little to extend. Providing financial resources is always divisive because within a budget money is finite** and allocating more funds to one area means less for another area. If you are looking for bottom-line numbers on the dollars I’m talking about when it comes to significant, steady resources, check back for tomorrow’s post. All of society must grapple with these issues and the consequences of their decisions. Scientists just want to make a pitch to their investors- you. Let us prove we are a good investment.


* I am not a financial advisor. Regardless do no use this as a retirement strategy, but do start saving now and talk to Chuck or ING or Fidelity etc.

**I know there are some economists and politicians that may disagree with me on the subject of how budgets work with respect to finite resources. However, in a closed system, I’m sure the laws of thermodynamics will bear me out on this one.

UPDATE: Here’s a recent article from Science about funding research. What’s so special about science (and how much should we be spending on it)?

“Our message is that science is a single, unified, long-term enterprise in which basic science discoveries, and research accomplishments of applied science and engineering, are things to be admired in their own right that also, often unpredictably, lead to better jobs and better lives, new products and new industries.”

Leeway: Serendipitous Science and the Usefulness of Obscure Research


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 next term of the contract…

“Give us some leeway on basic research because some practical innovations come about fortuitously.”

There are numerous stories documenting how instances of scientific serendipity contribute to innovation. For all of our striving to proceed logically, sometimes it is the experimental failures or setbacks that thrust us unexpectedly forward. Some research may sound so preposterous as to evoke brazen ridicule, but it too can prove invaluable. Scientists are asking you- give us a break sometimes.

“There are no applied sciences, only applications of science.” Louis Pasteur

One famous serendipitous discovery is that of antibiotics by Alexander Fleming. He was working on the influenza virus when some of his bacterial culture plates became contaminated with mold. Contamination is a fact of life in the world of microbiology, but Fleming noticed that the common fungus on his plate (Penicillium notatum) prevented the growth of his bacterial culture. He decided to pursue this observation and discovered a potent substance made by the mold that could kill bacteria. It is known as penicillin. This discovery had immediate medical applications and spawned a new field of antimicrobial research. There is no question that the discovery and use of antibiotics has had an enormous effect on modern society, but it is all because

“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.” Sir Alexander Fleming

Other breakthroughs to which acts of chance and serendipity played a role include X-rays, insulin, the pacemaker, and vulcanized rubber.

Many of the above-mentioned researchers would have been described as working on obviously important subjects. Chance events certainly accelerated their breakthroughs, but their research otherwise would have been considered useful. There is also another class of fortuitous discovery in which research that could only be described as obscure leads to critical technological advances. These examples highlight the need for all kinds of basic research. If they can yield practical applications, then no research topic should be disparaged. Congress now bestows the “Golden Goose Award” to honor these scientists whose research

“demonstrates the human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact.”

I would encourage you to read the portfolios of the awardees. It is amazing to see how history has justified the research that laid the foundation for laser technology, which in its time was considered a waste of money, or how studies on what makes jellyfish fluorescent contribute to modern research in cell biology and genetics. So again, I ask you the public to give us some leeway on our research subjects because you can really never tell what application may be waiting around the corner.


UPDATE 12/06/13:

It has been brought to my attention (see comment below) that the first Golden Goose Awardee, was perhaps just a goose. Well, obviously not the technology since the Coulter Counter is, in fact real, but the story behind hardened paint in the garage was complete fiction! It’s what I get for assuming someone else on the award board (and numerous other science news outlets that ran similar snippets of the story) had done their homework. Check out this Open Access article “The Coulter Principle: Imaginary Origins” for a thorough de-bunking of this scientific urban legend. Note that my link to the Wallace Coulter Awardee page (below) is broken and no record exists for this gaffe on the Golden Goose Award page.

So, I am retracting this paragraph that was included in the original post:

The first awardee for 2013 is Wallace H. Coulter. The goal of his research was to find a way to paint Navy ships a uniform color because current technology was insufficient. It turns out the technology he developed to analyze paint samples provided a faster, more-reliable way to count red blood cells than the standard method at the time. This connection came about because the paint samples he would have used to test his invention hardened in his garage lab. Instead of going out in the bad weather to get more paint, he tried the invention out on the only other liquid available to him with similar properties- his own blood. Of course, his machine was able to detect the red blood cells in his sample and the rest is history. Can you imagine the spark he must have felt after getting that result? His invention remains the standard technology behind the most-ordered medical diagnostic test in the world the Complete Blood Count (CBC). The moral of the story is that even something as mundane as paint analysis can yield an important breakthrough for society.