Science has been making headlines recently. From the discovery of water on Mars to talk of future manned space missions, scientific research is presented as exciting and glamorous. But does the focus on awe-inspiring space missions detract from the “hard problems” of our time? Science is equally important to solving problems of drought, the acidification of our oceans, and rising carbon emissions, yet these issues do not receive nearly as much attention as they should. As Michael Evans of Dartmouth College puts it, why are we “spending taxpayer money to find water on another planet when we can't get Earth's water to [our own drought-stricken] areas?”
Evans offers practical guidelines about how we can harness the excitement of science and use it to meet the less glamorous challenges we are faced with every day. He believes that making “benefits to society” the single highest criterion for public science funding is important. Evans also suggests involving as many people from as many backgrounds as possible when it comes to scientific research; public employment programs, for example, are a good place to retrain people from different perspectives to add to the scientific talent pool.
Higher ed, as a leader in scientific research and development, contributes much to both the glamorous and fun scientific endeavors, as well as to the less exciting but equally important ones. By continuing to outreach to the public, work across disciplines, and communicate more effectively about science and climate change, higher ed will remain at the forefront of our climate solutions.
Water on Mars! Scientist survives on hostile planet! Wherever you look, it seems like something exciting is happening with science. This growing enthusiasm for science is good. But enthusiasm alone will not solve today's complex and difficult problems. We must turn excitement into meaningful involvement that improves our society, and the practice of science, for everyone's sake.
Stories about science are full of discovery, heroism, mystery-solving, and wonder. There's no denying the great visuals: televised NASA missions, Martian landscapes in blockbuster films, lively interviews with Bill Nye the Science Guy or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, even the explosive experimentation of Mythbusters. It doesn't matter that The Martian isn't a true story, or that Bill Nye and the Mythbusters crew are professional entertainers. The message is that science is exciting and fun!
Communicating science in this way is no accident. Ask a scientist why she chose her career, for example, and you'll probably hear about an inspiring early encounter with exciting science. Excitement also builds broad public support. It might not be obvious from our outrageous political discourse, but National Science Board surveys consistently find that Americans support scientific research and think that science and technology issues are important. People may disapprove of a particular scientist or disagree about a specific issue, but exciting science brings people together around shared enthusiasm.
What's wrong with a little excitement? For one thing, enthusiasm skews our perspective on what deserves public support. Planetary exploration missions, for example, do little to combat drought, environmental devastation, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or a host of other difficult, immediate challenges to our safety and security. But science that solves those problems is not very exciting. Like most scientific research, it involves long hours, little recognition, low funding, and frequent failure. When enthusiasm guides funding decisions, unexciting projects that we need lose out to projects that lift our spirits.