Letters

NextGenVOICES

Science  05 Oct 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6103, pp. 40-43
DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6103.40

Results: Big Ideas

In July, we asked young scientists to describe the one big idea in their field that they wish every non-scientist understood.

We heard from nearly 200 readers. A sample of the best responses can be found below. To allow for as many voices as possible, in some cases we have printed excerpts of longer submissions. To read the complete versions, as well as many more, go to http://scim.ag/NextGen4Results.

Submit Now: Experiments in Governing

Add your voice to Science! Our new NextGen VOICES survey is now open:

You've just been elected to your nation's highest office! In your inaugural address, announce the biggest challenge facing your country today and how you will use science to address it.

To submit, go to http://scim.ag/NextGen5

Deadline for submissions is 16 November. A selection of the best responses will be published in the 4 January 2013 issue of Science. Submissions should be 250 words or less. Anonymous submissions will not be considered. Please submit only once.

NextGen Speaks

CREDIT: PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

Recently, at the London 2012 Olympic Games, a famous Austrian swimmer found a creative explanation for his moderate success: He argued that intelligent athletes have a disadvantage in competitions because they tend to think too much. In an attempt to prove his claim, he pointed to an intelligent alpine skier who only won four World Cup races and an—in his opinion—rather unintelligent one who won more than 50. This might be an extreme example, but we encounter causal oversimplification and faulty generalizations so often in our daily lives that we barely notice them anymore. What makes matters worse is that politicians throughout the world—be it intentional or not—use logical fallacies as tools to justify unmoral actions and gain votes, inciting racism, sexism, and fear as collateral damage along the way. Their success is based on the lack of a basic understanding of logical fallacies and critical thinking. Much more than from a specific scientific concept, our society would benefit from knowledge of (and training in) scientific reasoning. The Austrian swimmer—although apparently hindered by his intelligence—managed to win 34 medals at major events throughout his very successful career.

RUDOLF GRISS

Laboratory of Protein Engineering, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Lausanne, CH-1015, Switzerland. E-mail: rudolf.griss{at}epfl.ch

CREDIT: PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

I wish every non-scientist understood [that]…. [c]arbon markets are our best climate policy alternative because (through the availability of carbon offsets) they create options for lowest-cost climate change mitigation…. The fact that carbon offsetting can be good seems to have been lost in an ideological debate about development justice, achieving emissions reductions in established industries, and the blind pursuit of governance rigor…. Scientific perspectives have been largely overlooked. We need offsets that contribute to genuine sustainable outcomes, but we also need to make progress on climate change mitigation, and offsets enable a more economically palatable transition.

PAUL DARGUSCH

School of Geography Planning and Environmental Management, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD 4072, Australia. E-mail: p.dargusch{at}uq.edu.au

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I am an environmental toxicologist, and I wish that people understood the concepts of hazard and risk and the differences between the two. Chemicals are hazardous—even things we might think of as benign or “natural”—but they only cause a problem when they reach a concentration that is associated with a hazard. Risk [is a measure of both] hazard and exposure. I am frustrated by news and social media outlets that incite fear of “hazardous chemicals” in the general public without ever considering the level to which exposure is occurring.

KATHERINE COADY

The Dow Chemical Company, Midland, MI 48674, USA. E-mail: ktcoady05{at}gmail.com

CREDIT: PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

…Numerous recent examples of rapid phenotypic evolution in wild populations, occurring over the span of just a few generations, have taught modern biologists that evolutionary change is something we can often observe directly. Yet the average nonscientist (perhaps even the average nonbiologist) thinks that evolution can only crawl through the millennia at a pace that is slower than anything humans can easily imagine. This mindset allows many to safely ignore evolution, or, worse, reject it entirely…. [T]he misunderstanding that evolution occurs primarily on a geologic time scale has impeded societal endeavors such as human medicine, harvest of natural resources, and conservation efforts. But times are changing. Physicians are updating antibiotic dosage suggestions to curb the evolution of drug-resistant pathogens. Fisheries management agencies are applying life history theory to effectively manage wild stock. Conservation groups are realizing the importance of conserving genetic variation in threatened species…. A public grasp of one of the biggest ideas in contemporary evolutionary biology is within reach.

STEPHEN P. DE LISLE

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S 3B2, Canada. E-mail: s.delisle{at}utoronto.ca

CREDIT: PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

[I wish every non-scientist understood] the immunology underlying vaccines. It frustrates me to no end that available, effective inventions to combat disease aren't always used due to media reporting and mass hysteria. If the public and media networks fully understood the science behind vaccines, preventable deaths could be avoided.

ADITI HALDER

University of Queensland, St. Lucia, QLD 4067, Australia. E-mail: aditi.halder{at}uqconnect.edu.au

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I wish the public understood the endosymbiotic theory. In realizing that mitochondria have a radically different genome than what exists in our nuclear DNA, one has to grapple with a startling idea: Life as we know it would not exist without these small organelles, once mere foreign bodies inside our single-celled ancestors. For all our arrogance, humans are not independent from other life on this planet; the story of the natural world is not only about the struggle of individual species but about the relationships between them. Understanding our interconnectedness provides plenty of food for thought—and thoughtful citizens make thoughtful stewards.

JILLIAN WALKER

Department of Biological Sciences, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, CA 91768, USA. E-mail: jswalker{at}csupomona.edu

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I work in the field of medical genetics and genetic counseling, an area where the contact with the nonscientific public is very intense. It would be great if we could better explain concepts related to risk of recurrence, recessive inheritance, and de novo mutations…. Sometimes it is very difficult to alleviate the sense of guilt that parents of malformed children experience….

EDUARDO PREUSSER DE MATTOS

Department of Genetics, Genetics and Molecular Biology Graduate Program, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, 91501-970, Brazil. E-mail: eduardo.mattos{at}ufrgs.br

CREDIT: PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

…The idea of ever-increasing complexity is rooted in a strong adherence to the old Aristotelean world view of hierarchical classification of living things, which still permeates our everyday thinking. But in this case, it is time to let it go. The past two decades provided plenty of evidence that the endless variety of forms surrounding us is the product of just a handful of signaling pathways and gene regulatory modules, which are used iteratively over and over during development. Just as the imaginative combination of a limited number of Lego bricks can create a dazzling array of forms, so can changes in the regulation of key genes create new pigmentation patterns, new appendages or new behaviors. If people came to terms with this concept, most likely they would accept more readily our place in nature as just one branch on the Tree of Life….

MÁTÉ VARGA

Department of Genetics, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, H-1117, Hungary. E-mail: m.varga{at}ucl.ac.uk

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[I wish non-scientists understood] the idea that one of the biggest threats to public health is the rise in the drug-resistant pathogens. Due to increased global trade and travels, these pathogens can spread easily. Our global research system is necessary and timely. We never know when local problems and solutions may become global, and every part of the world has a contribution to make.

PATRICK KOBINA ARTHUR

Department of Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, University of Ghana, Legon-Accra, Ghana. E-mail: parthur{at}ug.edu.gh

CREDIT: PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

…I work with different species of fungi, many of which are pathogens.…I wish more people, non-scientists as well as some prominent scientists, understood that organisms that cause disease are defined as pathogens only in relation to the organisms they affect.…Pests causing infestations and epidemics are usually an integral part of the ecosystem. Often, we overlook the fact that diseases occurring at a larger scale are caused by an ecosystem imbalance.… [M]any times, imbalances are caused by anthropogenic factors and are indicators of our own shortsighted harmful activities that lead to medical and environmental catastrophes….[I]f more people adopted a less anthropocentric perception of their existence, they would be freer to plan a sustainable future in the long term with research efforts and funding perhaps shifting toward…biodiversity and conservation.

LJERKA LAH

Laboratory for Molecular Biology and Nanobiotechnology, National Institute of Chemistry, Ljubljana, SI-1000, Slovenia. E-mail: ljerka.lah{at}ki.si

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I am in Science Policy and I wish everyone had a better understanding that science itself is not politicized or inherently supportive of one party or another. Too many people, I think, believe that science serves only a particular viewpoint or political argument. In reality, science is the underlying foundation on which to make policy decisions that may or may not hinge on the science itself. With a better understanding of that, I hope people would not be as quick to criticize scientific reports and the scientists who produce them based solely on the conclusions.

ANISH GOEL

Technology Policy and Geopolitical Affairs, The Boeing Company, Seattle, WA 98101, USA. E-mail: anish.goel{at}boeing.com

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…A clear understanding of pharmacogenomics would lead to safer prescriptions, reduced risk of adverse side effects, minimized healthcare cost, and improved clinical outcomes. In addition, a better understanding of this concept will encourage the public to participate in clinical trials in order to bridge the knowledge gap among clinicians, scientists, and the non-medical community. This will pave the way for the advancement of medicine and improvement of standard practice.

MICHAEL O. BACLIG

Research and Biotechnology Division, St. Luke's Medical Center, Quezon City, 1102, Philippines. E-mail: mobaclig{at}stluke.com.ph

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[I wish non-scientists understood] the concept of gene-environment interaction that could predispose us to the progression of certain diseases. Diseases are often multifaceted in nature, and studying merely genetics or simple in vitro models is not sufficient in recapitulating the environmental factors that we are exposed to across the years…. If everyone can take a small step to mitigate possible deleterious gene-environment interactions by altering their lifestyles, we can potentially reduce our healthcare costs even without discovering novel treatments to delay or reverse the progression of the diseases plaguing the developed world.

BRYCE TAN

Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National Univesity of Singapore, 119077, Singapore. E-mail: brycetan03{at}hotmail.com

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Uncertainty. It does not mean I don't know. It is quantifiable. It is understandable. Communication between non-scientists and scientists would improve greatly if non-scientists understood scientific uncertainty. I work between the fields of environmental engineering and ecology in interdisciplinary research. My work links to sensitive issues such as climate change and environmental pollution. We are scientists, not fortune-tellers or psychics reading into the future. No, we cannot predict every exact detail what will happen because of human impacts on the Earth system. But, using scientific observations combined with sophisticated models, we can determine a range of what could happen and what most likely will happen….

SARAH M. ANDERSON

Nitrogen Systems: Policy-Oriented Interdisciplinary Research and Education-IGERT and School of Biological Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164, USA. E-mail: sarah.anderson2{at}email.wsu.edu

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[I wish non-scientists would help] stop overuse of antibiotics….[A]ntibiotic use for any kind of abnormal physiological condition is a common practice in developing countries like Nepal. Even though we are not sick, we use antibiotics in our daily life, for example, cosmetics, shampoo, and meat from antibiotics-treated animals….Improper use and overuse of antibiotics are the major reasons for the increase in multi-drug-resistant bacterial strains. Bacteria may gain sovereignty again over humankind unless everyone stops overuse and misuse of antibiotics.

BISHNU P. MARASINI

Natural Product Research Laboratory, Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, Khumaltar, Lalitpur, Nepal. E-mail: bishnu.marasini{at}gmail.com

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…As a neuroscientist working on learning and memory, I wish every non-scientist could appreciate the beauty of our sophisticated neural circuits and understand that dramatic enhancement of human intelligence is optimistically possible….

CHUN-WAI MA

Department of Physiology, Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China. E-mail: cwma2010{at}hku.hk

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…As a Ph.D. student, one of the most challenging—and sometimes discouraging—things for me to explain to a non-scientist is why I chose to be a scientist, and why my research matters. The satisfaction and joy I have when accomplishing a hard-earned research project, adding valuable data to a long-term study, or discovering a new question to explore can be intangible to a non-scientist. I don't expect non-scientists to fully understand why I chose my career path, but the notion that science is a critical component to understanding our world, now more than ever, seems lost on many….

ELIZABETH PHILLIPS

School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA. E-mail: emp11{at}uw.edu

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