Answering the “simple” questions about science

Just this evening, Alan Alda (former star of the television show M.A.S.H.) was featured on a segment of the PBS News Hour that dealt with communicating with the broader public about science and scientific discovery.

Alan Alda has evolved from sitcom star to advocate for scientific activism.

During the episode, Neil Degrasse Tyson of the American Museum of Natural History in New York – who hosts science-based programs on television – summed up my sentiments perfectly when he said:

If you get tax money to do your research… then you — it is not only your duty. It’s an obligation to share the fruits of your research with the public. If the public doesn’t embrace science, then not only does science go out of business. So does the public. So does your country.

His message was stark: scientists have an obligation to engage with the public about science because, if the public does not understand and accept science, it’s very survival is at risk.

This is most clear in the case of biomedical research involving animals.

Basic, biomedical and behavioral research in animals has been responsible for near every discovery over the last 100 years that has advanced human health and welfare. These trends are borne out in multiple ways. Let’s first look at life expectancy. In 1900, the typical US citizen lived into their mid 50s. Today, life expectancy spans into the late 70s. In 100 years, modern medicine has made it possible for people to live TWO DECADES longer. Some have stated that, while life is longer, disease burden has not lessened, but that also flies in the face of basic facts. Look at what vaccines alone have done for disease in the general public. In the early 1950s, half a million cases of measles per year were reported. In the 1920s, more than 300,000 persons per year were infected with diptheria or pertussis. In the intervening time, science has given us a greater than 95% decline in both, all thanks to biomedical research that involved both humans and animals. These statistics are only the start…

In every area of disease, science has paved the way for healthier lives, and we have to let people know about this message. If the public fails to grasp science and walks away from it, it’s very existence is at stake. It’s our job, as scientists, to not only ensure that the science progresses but that the broader public understands what we do and how it affects their daily lives.

And with that, I go back to awaiting one of the most momentous announcements in recent scientific history – namely, the presentation of evidence regarding the characteristics of the Higgs Boson. I may not be a physicist, but I know that nothing about life on this planet can be understood if we can’t conceptualize the basic units of the universe that make up our bodies and our planet.

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3 comments

  1. There are so many examples of how biomedical research has improved the lives of humans and animals. There are even many examples of how this research has helped the people that I know and love.
    The fact that we now live longer is one of the most basic and powerful examples of these advances.
    I am also looking for the exciting research to be announced from Switzerland and I look forward to the debates to come!

  2. I am a complete lay person but I have a deep appreciation for science and it’s effects on our daily lives, especially since becoming a parent. I’m thoroughly enjoying your posts and I’m sharing them on my social media pages. It’s easy to take a quick uneducated opinion and walk away feeling morally superior but these issues are so complicated that it’s frankly just irresponsible. It’s the kind of thing that results in the Texas Republican Party’s 2012 platform literally calling for an end to teaching critical thinking skills in the classroom. The anti-intellectualism has got to end somewhere. In my opinion, science is the savior of the world, nothing else. Scientists need to get loud and hire some PR folks.

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