In my view, the biggest factors working against public support for science are the short attention span of people and the tendency to discount the accomplishments of the past, no matter how much we, ourselves, actually benefit from them. People do not die of tuberculosis or leprosy or during child birth the way they once commonly did. That’s the past. These are successes in the bag that we take for granted today.
Even I have a hard time remembering that HIV surged in the world in my lifetime and that, when I was younger, being diagnosed was more or less a sentence of stigma and death. Only a short 30 yrs later, HIV+ people are living long, healthy lives complete with love, joy and comparative normalcy. Only thirty bloody years have made the difference between death and life. Science made the difference between death and life. Animal research made the difference between death and life.
Science has transformed our lives in ways we can barely appreciate because many of us no longer know what it means to fear polio, type-1 diabetes or a cut on the foot.
We have a way to go yet on our journey – that is surely true. But the distance left to cover is only now visible to us because of the thousands of miles already traversed.
Be we should be no less thankful for this progress. As for me, I am thankful. But also wistful. Wistful that so many died of complications of AIDS before we made “the machines and the drugs and everything else” that people do when mounting a colossal effort to save the lives of people in need. If more research had been done, earlier, maybe thousands (or more) could have been spared. Maybe someone you loved could have been spared.
As a young gay man coming of age in the era of HIV/AIDS, I remember being told by HIV activists that “silence would not protect” us. Now, as a researcher who is trying to advance the human condition through biomedical research on animals, I realize that the only way to overcome the understandably short attention span that leads to apathy about science is to set silence to the side and remind people how much science has done – not just for us and our loved ones, but for people everywhere.
So, I ask you tonight to just stop for a second and remember how much progress has been made. I ask you to imagine how many lives were lengthened, and how many seconds of joy were added to the lives of people around the world only because science happened. And if you feel grateful for that, let other people know. Share it. Because if we are silent, apathy will win. And apathy is the foot in the door that hateful animal rights fanatics are looking for. Let’s displace that apathy with thankfulness and love.