Thursday, 20 August 2009

Scientists need to get real

GUEST POST from Professor Adam Foster

Many battles are fought in an effort to get the public (notice already the implicit segregation) interested in science, and it is a conflict that certainly calls me to the frontlines. However, there is much less effort expended to get scientists interested in the public, with many leading researchers proud of their disengagement from “common man”.

To some extent, particularly for the harder fields of science such as physics and mathematics, a scientific career is a rejection of the world as we currently perceive it and an attempt to find the underlying truth. This often attracts people who feel the world has rejected them, and elitism and cultism are readily embraced. The consequences of this range from the minor inconvenience of social dysfunction in the real world to an incapacity, or unwillingness, to understand the long-term implications of research.

In the last decade, the increasing awareness that many of the technologies and industries at the heart of global economic output are direct results of basic research, along with the powerful impact of biological studies on medicine, has led to pressure from governments to reduce the time between ideas and implementations. Generally, research proposals must now have real applications embedded within them, and, ideally, direct involvement from relevant companies.

This encourages engagement beyond the academic world, but, on average, scientists are not stupid, and they can spin a proposal to read as a beautiful hybrid of research, technology and industry, while planning to avoid reality corruption at all costs. The companies selected are often spin-offs from scientitic departments, led by ex-academics, keeping everything on the inside. The creation of this separate, scientific world, as in many other fantasies, leads its occupants to believe that the normal rules do not apply to them.

An example is the recent outcry from the scientific community when politicians interfered with funding decisions. Republicans in the US House of Representatives killed three grants from the $31 billion National Institute of Health bill. These grants focused on studies of prostitutes in Thailand and China, and alcoholics in Russia in order to better understand the spread of HIV/AIDS. The projects were approved in peer-review and would cost only $5 million over five years, and likely greatly aid in stopping this global threat.

Killing them was short-sighted, ill-informed and panders to the worst aspects of US nationalism (not all US nationalism is bad). It is also the fifth time since 2003 that conservative Republicans have tried to kill peer-reviewed projects.

So what? The loud complaints from researchers seem a particularly tired rallying call. Since 2003 hundreds of well-prepared and organized proposals from all spheres of life have been killed for political reasons, without any real consideration of their value. Why should scientific proposals get such special treatment? Considering how few are actually affected, perhaps they already do. If scientists want to get more money from the public, then they need to engage with their world, and play by its rules.

Adam Foster is Professor of Theoretical Physics at the edge of the world (Tampere University of Technology, Finland.) Trying desperately to engage with reality when sober. He started blogging before it existed and then stopped when it did. And now?


  1. Adam I think you have a point! I don't think pursuit of science is an attempt to disengage from the real world but can think of many fellow scientists who do.

    I just saw this project to connect journalists and scientists posted on twitter, maybe such schemes will help if enough scientists participate.

  2. It would help if I included the link (but what do you expect from scatter-brained scientists...):

  3. I think this is a great initiative, and I was glad to see that FP7 (europe wide funding for science) offers a lot of money in this area. I would still like to see scientists going to talk to journalists more, and not the other way around.