Science Education And Political Choices

At lunch the other day, there were some magazines on the table. I picked one up, turned to a random page, and a particular phrase caught my eye – in essence, the writer was saying that they don’t believe we should give scientists a blank check, and a carte blanche to do whatever research takes their fancy. He seemed to imply that some scientists say that we should. I don’t know if any scientists actually do say that, however, it raises an important question. Who, ideally, should decide what scientists should work on, and how much money they should get?
Some might argue that the scientists should decide. They, after all, know best what their research is about. They may even have the clearest idea about what benefit it may bring to society. However, scientists are just as human as everyone else, and are therefore just as tempted as anyone else to overstate the value of their own contributions.

In practice, in developed countries, money for science is divvied up by government-appointed panels. The amount of money, and the general direction of research, is set by the governing powers of the day, and these politicians are elected by the people as local representatives. In an indirect and roundabout way, it is the general public who decides which scientists get the cash to seek new discoveries. Some might argue that this is a good thing. After all, tax money comes out of our pocket, shouldn’t we have a say in where it goes?

Should we?

The sad fact is, most people don’t have sufficient scientific know-how to make this kind of decision. That extra million there – is it better to spend it on a new hospital, or on experiments with powerful magnetic fields? Or on glow-in-the-dark jellyfish?

There are, in fact, many more decisions like this one that the public makes at election time – decisions requiring more scientific nous than the average Joe or Jenny possesses. If we, the people, don’t understand an issue well enough, our decisions will be random at best. At worst, we will be completely taken by the special interest group with the best PR machine. Some issues that have come to the fore in recent years :

  • Global warming : is there really evidence that the earth is getting hotter? Scientists say so. And what are the likely consequences? Is the cost of a Carbon tax or Emissions Trading Scheme worth it? And what does this have to do with the acidification of the sea? With poor knowledge of science, the public can’t decide.
  • Power Generation : Is nuclear power still unsafe? Was it ever? Why or why not? Are biofuels really responsible for high food prices? Is solar and wind power really unstable? Are there ways to overcome these problems, or are fossil fuels still the only practical energy source? Where would a few million bucks of research money do the most good? A lot of scientific details need to be grasped to properly answer these questions, yet the public is deciding on them now.
  • Stem Cell Treatments : which is more unethical – to experiment on stem cells from a human embryo, or to deny someone 10 years from now a chance to recover from Alzheimer’s? Does the (newly discovered) ability to create stem cells from normal adult cells change our answers? If we don’t understand the scientific issues, how can we understand the ethical ones?
  • GMO labeling : Should food manufacturers be compelled to label products containing genetically modified ingredients? If so, is it enough to just say “contains genetically modified soybeans”, or does the kind of modification matter? What, exactly, is GM anyway, and what are the real risks and benefits? How can a normal member of the public obtain an informed opinion?

These issues – and others like them – won’t go away. Or if they do, there will be other hot questions that take their place. If the public can’t decide, these issues will be made by politicians and media personnel. Such people are no more likely to understand the science behind the issues than anyone else.

So what’s to be done?

Ideally, everyone in society would have an adequate grasp of basic science (and economics and psychology and so on!). Enough to “get” the core issues in a debate. Enough to see which side is talking sense and which side is just blathering on – or whether both are doing both. Unfortunately, in many people’s minds, science education should be reserved for future scientists. If this course were followed, only a small minority of people would ever know why saving the life of particular plant might be worth delaying a new iron refinery.

We shouldn’t expect everyone to become scientist. In fact, only a small minority of people will choose such a path. Does this mean that the rest should be left with no appreciation of science? Not at all! Only a small percentage of people become musicians of any calibre, or actors or writers. However, many many people appreciate music, films and books – and the world is a better place because of this.

The idea in the preceding paragraph came from a book I read some time ago. I can’t recall the title, alas. The author imagined a world where people appreciate science in the same way they appreciate music now. Science is an artistic endeavour as well as an intellectual one. It is as filled with the joy of discovery as is a holiday in an unfamiliar country. It often produces products that impact our lives in practical, positive ways. There’s no reason why a non-scientist couldn’t appreciate it.

So, while a teacher can’t expect all his or her students to become scientists (or mathematicians!), they can and should try to instill in them a sense of amazement at what science is, what it does, and what it shows us about our world. Even if they missed that in their own education, there are myriads of ways to fill the gap now, with science museums, science experiments on Youtube, and online advice.

Go for it!