Letters

Why science? Scientists share their stories

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Science  12 May 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6338, pp. 590-592
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan4988

The desire to protect fragile ecosystems inspires many to pursue and defend science.

PHOTO: DESIGN PICS INC/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

AAAS (the publisher of Science) recently launched www.forceforscience.org, a new website to facilitate science advocacy. The site offers news, resources, and information about upcoming events for both scientists and the public. By way of introduction, we asked these questions: Why is science important to you? How has science affected your life, your career, or your community? Why is it important that the government continue to invest in research and support the scientific enterprise? What message would you like to send to policy-makers regarding science? More than 150 science enthusiasts responded, passionately defending the role of science research in human health, the future of the planet, and the thrill of discovery. Here, we have printed excerpts from some of their answers. These essays, and more, will also be posted on the Force for Science site.

Sustainability and conservation

I work in conservation. Ecosystem collapse would end human civilization as surely as nuclear war or global warming. Natural sciences show why we need to conserve biodiversity. Social sciences show that conservation needs people for economic and political support. In an attempt to address these complex issues, I have moved from ecological research to industry, to law, to trade disputes, to ecosystem services markets, to ecotourism, and now to psychology. How can we harness human desires, and create social machines and political institutions, to protect planetary ecosystems? Science leads the search for new ideas and understanding.

Ralf C. Buckley

Griffith School of Environment, Griffith University, Gold Coast, QLD 4222, Australia. Email: r.buckley{at}griffith.edu.au

As a marine scientist, I study fish communities living within mangrove habitats in the Galapagos Islands. We hope the Galapagos National Park will use our findings to design zoning plans that will not only protect biodiversity, but also support long-term productivity of local fisheries. It is important that governments support scientific research because the results can ensure that resources are exploited sustainably in the long-term, improving the well-being of their citizens.

Denisse Fierro Arcos

Marine Sciences Department, Charles Darwin Research Station, Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador. Email: denisse.fierro{at}fcdarwin.org.ec

Human health

Science is what makes us modern humans and gives us the quality of life we have today. We can look back over the evolution of humanity and clearly see what science did over time. People were dying from simple infections that are cured with Neosporin today. Thousands of would-be mothers and babies died throughout history because a simple cesarean section could not be performed properly until the 19th century. As a parent, I cannot be more thankful and relieved when I think of all we have available to make sure our children grow up with access to proper medicine, nutrition, and education. As a professional, I can't think of any part of the day when science is not part of my life.

Daniel L. Clinciu

Graduate Institute of Basic Medical Science, China Medical University, Taichung, Taiwan, 40402, Republic of China. Email: celdan99{at}gmail.com

I have suffered from anxiety and depression since early adolescence. My research on building resilience in adolescents has provided me with a blueprint to improve my own life and the lives of others. Critically, this blueprint is based on science! That means it is evidence-based, with a strong empirical and theoretical basis, allowing me to make concrete recommendations to community groups conducting work in the area of adolescent mental health. Without government investment, none of this research would be possible.

Damian Scarf

Department of Psychology, University of Otago, Dunedin, 9054, New Zealand. Email: damian{at}psy.otago.ac.nz

As an M.D./Ph.D. student, I have the privilege of observing the direct impact science can have on patients' lives. I sleep better knowing that science works to prevent doctors from having to tell patients that “nothing can be done.” I would ask policy-makers to acknowledge the incredible recent progress science has made in health through genetics, stem cells, medical imaging, microbiota, and more. Science creates profits, job opportunities in a knowledge economy, and human progress. Let's invest together.

Mark Trinder

Centre for Heart Lung Innovation, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, V6Z 1Y6, Canada. Email: mtrinder{at}alumni.ubc.ca

Science shed light on the environmental and economic issues affecting my hometown of Flint, Michigan. Because of the water crisis in Flint, the country began to investigate similar communities, revealing similar issues. Research leads to new discoveries that improve all of our lives. It is why we are able to move forward with innovative health, environmental, and technological advances.

Endia J. Santee

Cancer Survivorship Program, University of Cincinnati Cancer Institute, Cincinnati, OH 45221, USA. Email: endia.santee{at}uc.edu

For some, science is personal, having helped to safeguard their children's health.

PHOTO: PHDG/ISTOCKPHOTO

As a Ph.D. student and postdoc, I learned to sift through research literature to find out about the latest advances in medical research. Fast-forward 10 years, and I used the same resources to wrap my head around pediatric medicine. I found that while modern medicine certainly does not have all the answers, it has many solutions and is actively seeking more. Armed with hope and a measure of confidence from this knowledge, my husband and I adopted a child considered “difficult to place for adoption” due to medical challenges. Looking back 8 years, it is hard to imagine we could have ever passed by our gorgeous son. He is healthy, happy, and sports-mad, and he lights up the room with his enthusiasm for life. His school displays the word “YET” (as in “I don't know the answer YET”) prominently in every classroom. For me, this is what science is.

Katherine Kirk

QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Brisbane, QLD, 4006, Australia. Email: katherine.kirk{at}qimrberghofer.edu.au

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The beeping machines, the electrodes, the IV drip—all an affront to the natural childbirth we had planned. But there were complications, so cables streamed data from the baby to the machines while the IV stimulated contractions as my wife pushed heroically amid the clamor. When the baby's heart rate dropped, the cesarean became inevitable. “We have to do this for Benjamin,” the surgeon said urgently, looking straight into my wife's eyes. Thirty minutes later I held him, wet and warm, his skin separated from my lips only by the thin cloth of my surgical mask. And now, 18 years later, Ben's robotics team is the champion and he ponders which engineering school will be his new home. He has a deep love for machines, data, equations, and how to solve people's problems. Science matters because it makes our shared lives possible.

Tim Watkins

National Park Service, Washington, DC 20005, USA. Email: timwatkins1{at}gmail.com

My father is a microbiologist. In the early 1990s, he developed a medication that prevents HIV transmission from mother to child. Now, my father has Parkinson's disease. If we fail to fund scientific research, the experiments that might one day lead to a cure for Parkinson's will be stifled. This is why defunding biomedical science is shortsighted. Investments in research are just that: investments. They won't pay of next week. They won't give a bump in polling popularity. But what they will do, eventually, is to save actual human beings from suffering. If government dollars aren't worth that, what are they worth?

Andrew Merluzzi

Neuroscience and Public Policy Program, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, WI 53705, USA. Email: andrewmerluzzi{at}gmail.com

Truth

Science is important to me because it can be proven, demonstrated, and replicated with accuracy. It is not a gut feeling or a difference of opinion. My community in Pakistan is rapidly catching up with the world, and we do so with the help of science.

Haider Ali Shishmahal

Cyberjack Studios/PixelArt Games Academy, Islamabad, Punjab, 44220, Pakistan. Email: hshishmahal{at}gmail.com

Scientists do not understand how someone can be presented with overwhelming data (which is painstakingly, slowly, laboriously compiled, checked, rechecked, and debated) and then say, “This isn't happening.” Policy-makers must understand that science is a vital way of illuminating the world. If we don't like what we see, then we need to make changes to improve the situation rather than trying to turn out the light.

Rebekah Morrow

Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine, Dothan, AL 36305, USA. Email: remorrow{at}acomedu.org

Shared history

The history of science is our heritage—our national, cultural, and social shared identity, united around the tenets of naturalism and empiricism. It gives us pride in past generations and hope for future ones. Those who oppose science try to undermine the influence it has on our political and social policy. This is unnecessary. Science cannot make our decisions for us. Ever. Only we can do that. Thus, we must fund science. We must always replenish the pool of facts about the world, from which we can choose what we want and how we want to achieve it. That is how science is nonpartisan.

Em Dzhali Maier

Department of Science and Technology Studies, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912, USA. Email: cherven.daemonium{at}gmail.com

“If you don't know your history, then you don't know anything; you would be like a leaf that does not know it is part of a tree” (Pohnpeian proverb). For Pacific Islanders, the past is a resource—it is part of you. As an archaeologist working in the Pacific, this means engaging communities to bring their history alive from the remnants of their ancestors, where every artifact is part of the human story. Through science we tease apart that story, and ground it in facts drawn from stone foundations, altered terrain, and the tangible debris of human activity. The result is an understanding of a community's genesis through time and space, including its social, economic, political, and technological organization—a heritage that inspires future directions and contributes to the human puzzle of life, endurance, and adaptation.

Felicia R. Beardsley

Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of La Verne, La Verne, CA 91750, USA. Email: fbeardsley{at}laverne.edu

Shared future

I would not be where I am without my colleagues. Several researchers at my institution come from different countries. Despite the differences in culture, our common purpose to make the world a better place unites us. Governments should cooperate in the same way. No matter what, we share the same planet and we are responsible for it.

Karen da Silva Lopes

Department of Sustainable Development, Vale Institute of Technology, Belém/Pará, 66055-090, Brazil. Email: karen.lopes{at}pq.itv.org

Public high school in Southern Indiana gave me a vague understanding of what science does, but not how to “do” it. To me, science was some sort of magical process, with grand ideas appearing from some hidden genius class. I later realized that police investigators (usually) use something similar to the scientific method. Most officers don't follow a formal process, and few would consider themselves scientists, but they are finding truth. I realized that science and scientific thinking is for everyone, not just ivory-tower geniuses. There is a great sense of empowerment knowing that anyone can “do” science, which —for me—also increases curiosity. We should invest in science, not only to help innovation, but to improve the lives, curiosity, and thinking of the average person. Science is for everyone.

Joshua I. James

Legal Informatics and Forensic Science Institute, Hallym University, Chuncheon, Gangwon, 24252, South Korea. Email: joshua.i.james{at}hallym.ac.kr

Discovery and wonder

Science can encourage a sense of wonder, which many believe is reason enough to support it.

PHOTO: LUKAS SCHLAGENHAUF/FLICKR

Science is what makes even the mundane aspects of nature profound. I am from a society that relies on mysticism for cures, and science has allowed me to break free from ignorance and identify problems and their prospective solutions with pragmatism. A few months ago, while educating children from a slum, I noticed their excitement when I told them how the air we breathe moves through our whole body and is carried by blood, like a cargo system. The government should bring science to these children, or they will be left in a different age.

Hassnain Qasim

Atta-ur-Rahman School of Applied Biosciences, National University of Sciences and Technology, Islamabad, 44000, Pakistan. Email: qasimhassnain{at}gmail.com

I am an astronomer. I love that we can look up into the sky and wonder at its beauty, and then we can study the stars and galaxies we find there. I love that astronomy can serve as a gateway for students to get into science because of its ability to inspire wonder. While there are important economic benefits that have emerged from the study of astronomy, from the calibration of the Global Positioning System (GPS) to laser surgery, we must not lose sight of the importance of wonder and inspiration that come from the study of science.

Jessica Rosenberg

Department of Physics and Astronomy, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030, USA. Email: jrosenb4{at}gmu.edu

From astronomical observations, important theories were developed that describe the gravity of bodies. Centuries later, we had the theories of relativity. Humanity built on that knowledge, and several decades later we had technologies that gave us our satellites, the GPS, and the ability to send scientific instruments to other planets. We also had observations of atomic properties that led to the quantum theory. Decades later, we had lasers and computers. The practical impact need not be immediate for scientific discoveries to be important. Anything that reveals how the world works is important on both a philosophical and a technological level. But history has shown us that even basic research leads to substantial practical outcomes that improve our lives considerably sooner or later.

Spiros Kitsinelis

Nightlab Publications, Athens, 17121, Greece. Email: mail{at}the-nightlab.com

Thanks to public education and television, I fell in love with science and research at a young age. I've studied why bread rises, why meat browns, why canned peas soften, and why food tastes so darn bad on airplanes. We like to think of science as facts and logic, but really science is about finding out just how much we don't know. We must continue investing in science so children know the importance of asking “why?” Science and wonder are all around us, all the time. You just have to look for it.

Samantha VanWees

Department of Food Science, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, WI 53706, USA. Email: vanwees{at}wisc.edu

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