From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Is the March for Science a good idea? Part 2: Maybe not..."

Written by Paul Sutter on Sunday, 22 July 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

The March for Science made big news last year, when supporters and enthusiasts around the country flooded the streets of DC and their own cities. Featuring witty signs, catchy slogans, 'teach-ins", prominent speakers, and of course lots of marching, the March has become an annual tradition.

But not all scientists and members of the scientific community joined in the efforts. The March's slogan was "out of the labs and into the streets," but many scientists chose to stay in their labs. In this two-part series I'll weigh the pros and cons of the effort, ending with the cons:

By choosing to take the form of a *march*, the organizers painted the event - by will or by happenstance - with undeniably political colors . Marchers of any political movement send a clear and unmistakable message: you are either with us or against us. Either you agree will all our goals and aims, or you are the enemy, and it is now our mission to fight you, not teach you.

The March politicized science and centered most of its messages on climate change and evolution. These are obviously important topics, but the discussions around those topics have unfortunately been split along political lines. That's a division that we need to heal, not reinforce. Instead the March largely ignored the many aspects of science that people universally enjoy, but claimed to represent all science. The messaging was loud and clear: if you're of a traditionally conservative mindset, then science simply isn't yours.

Is this how we are supposed to spread a love and appreciation of science? By telling people they're ignorant and on the wrong side of a debate? Do we honestly believe that anyone who already viewed science negatively watched the demonstrators on TV and thought, "Yeah, alright, this science stuff sounds pretty fun and applicable to my life"?

Did the March for Science disown the very people we need to reach the most?

So while many scientists agreed with the messages of the March, they didn't necessarily agree with the methods. Science needs debate and skepticism to thrive, which are lacking in a march. To foster understanding and a true appreciation for the scientific worldview, we need olive branches and dialogs, not demonstrations and monologues.

That said, I can't blame someone who's passionate about science when they get out and proclaim that passion, so the debate continues...

"Is the March for Science a good idea? Part 1: Sure!"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 16 July 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

The March for Science made big news last year, when supporters and enthusiasts around the country flooded the streets of DC and their own cities. Featuring witty signs, catchy slogans, 'teach-ins", prominent speakers, and of course lots of marching, the March has become an annual tradition.

But not all scientists and members of the scientific community joined in the efforts. The March's slogan was "out of the labs and into the streets," but many scientists chose to stay in their labs. In this two-part series I'll weigh the pros and cons of the effort, starting with the pros:

Science, in general, has faced decades of funding cuts and budgetary uncertainty. Simultaneously, public sentiment, trust, and appreciation of science appears to be at an all-time low. It's time to wake up! Science doesn't exist in a vacuum - we are embedded in our communities. If we refuse to leave our ivory towers, we run the very real risk of the towers getting demolished. We need to show our communities that we're real human beings with feelings and dreams and, you know, faces.

Additionally, scientists are surrounded by science enthusiasts and fans, who may not practice science professionally but hold the methods and results of science in a special place in their hearts. If the apparatus of science depends on public funding, then we absolutely need to engage and activate those core supporters, so that they can convince their friends and - hopefully - legislators that science is awesome and we shouldn't turn off the funding tap. Scientists are somewhat busy, and we need our supporters to aid in this essential work.

Lastly, scientists themselves are excellent communicators, but in the specialized jargon and math of their field. We need to show the world that we're not alone, that non-scientists can enjoy and appreciate our work, and that what we do is in ultimate service to the world. By showing our communities the amount of support we have, and the solidarity of that support, we can more effectively do our jobs and serve our mission.

So with all that, get out and march! Or not...

"Stop, Collaborate, and Listen"

Written by Paul Sutter on Tuesday, 10 July 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

There are many features of the scientific enterprise that we can incorporate into our everyday lives. A willingness to challenge assumptions. A thirst for well-controlled data. A desire for experimental verification of ideas. An openness to observation regardless of the outcomes.

These are all well and good, and with a properly trained mind can be wielded to great effect. But there's one more feature of science that has only emerged relatively recently: the rise of the collaboration. Back in Ye Olden Times, scientists would often work solo, even going to the extreme of writing their notes using ciphers of their own devising. They would share, of course, by writing letters to colleagues or submitting articles to journals, but revelations were kept spare until results were finalized.

As the problems that scientists faced became more complex and especially as funding sources dried up, single-author papers became the exception rather than the rule. Even a purely theoretical paper using only back-of-the-envelope calculations will usually have two or three coauthors. Some papers, such as those produced by decades-long experimental efforts, will have a thousand or more names attached to it, representing the hard work of engineers, designers, technicians, coders, lead scientists, peripheral collaborators, and all their students and postdocs.

Modern science is an enterprise; almost an industry. The challenges we face require merging diverse skillsets, frequent communication, and global coordination. It's now an absolute necessity for graduate students to learn how to work within a larger collaboration. And this spirit of cooperation - that you can't solve most problems by yourself - is a wonderful thread that we can weave into all our discussions on what science is.

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