NPR recently wrote a story titled, “When Scientists Give Up.” The story revolved around scientists that, in the middle of their career, decided to switch professions entirely due to issues with funding. Now, I am a bit biased when it comes to the importance of science, and I’ll be the first to admit that. However, I think it’s clear what role science has played, and must continue to play, in our society (unashamedly using this as a plug for a previous blog that I wrote concerning science in society, which can be found here). And, don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with a change of career, whether it’s due to poor job prospects or simply a change of interest. That being said, what on Earth is an individual who spent a minimum of 8 rigorous years at a well-respected school – gaining knowledge for a very particular career – doing switching careers at 40? On that same note, why is someone in whom the US has invested millions of dollars in grant money changing career paths? Clearly, there is something wrong with this picture.
Science doesn’t prove facts – it explains them. Science doesn’t prove evolution, science explains evolution; science doesn’t prove gravity, science explains gravity; science doesn’t prove that cells form the basis of life, science explains how cells form the basis of life. All of these things are already taken as facts (so, yes, evolution is a “fact” in the same sense gravity or cell theory are “facts.” It’s an observation that science attempts to explain in a systematic, reviewed manner). Now, if science never proves things, how long does it need to work on an explanation before it can be taken for granted? There’s no real answer to this question, though it does require a decent amount of time. The answer is more a function of how well it stands the test, rather than the how long. Gravitational theory has been standing for nearly 400 years, evolutionary theory, cell theory, and germ theory (that is, the theory that microorganisms can cause disease) for about 150 years. Does that mean that these theories have went un-amended? Of course not! That’s what science does: it pokes and prods at our ideas, refining them until they are able to stand the test – any test. As iron sharpen iron, so one scientist – or a large community of them – sharpens another. Each of the previously mentioned theories were rather radical at their time, outside the common consensus and understanding of the time. Galileo’s ideas were so radical that he spent the last decade of his life under house arrest. All because he was trying to explain what he was seeing, and that explanation was regarded as too radical.
Money is a precious thing, not to be thrown around lightly (unless of course, it’s being blown on military-related projects, but that’s another story). Grant writing is tough, and the competition is incredibly fierce. As such, corporations that shell out grant money – hereafter referred to as “grantfathers,” a term I want credit for coining – are careful about to whom they choose to give. Unfortunately, it seems that more and more grantfathers are becoming conservative with their wagers. They’re spending their dollar playing the penny machines rather than the quarter-slots. While I understand the safe approach, it’s destroying the very essence and character of science. Yes, ideas must be rigorously tested and stand the test of time – even the boring ones. However, focusing only on this area of science, and ignoring the frontier-busting, trailblazing, imagination and passion driven areas of science is doing an injustice to the scientists, the field of study, and the country.
We didn’t get to where we are by playing it safe. Science – and by extension, technology – demands innovation. Innovation breeds errors. Errors, in the scientific community, breed precision. The current generation is afraid of failure. We are willing to stand up for a cause, maybe more so than most generations hitherto, but we are afraid to actually act upon the cause. This culturing of “skittishness” is driving science and technology into a plateau, shrinking the branches that emerge from the trunk of discovery. The innovation is there – the action is missing. But, who can blame them? You can only study what someone is willing to give you money for. In the modern field of science, you have to look out for numero uno, even if it flies in the face of everything you got into science for in the first place.
If government funding stays its conservative route, the future of the US as a leader in science and technology will grow dimmer and dimmer, overshadowed by more daring countries. Now, as a scientist, where will you go? Do you stay in the US, where funding is tight and sight is narrow, or across the pond, where funding, while still competitive, is more open-minded and nurturing of scientific curiosity? As the worlds’ greatest minds begin to reconvene outside of the US, our position as a global leader will diminish into something more second-rate. Once the scientists are gone, it will prove to be a difficult task getting them back. Students will seek degrees overseas, where the funding and mentors are to be found. The US has held this position for a long time, but is slowly slipping as king of the mountain. Once the avalanche starts, it will be difficult to reverse. If the way we currently handle pre-emptive tasks – such as fossil-fuel dependency or drug-resistant bacteria – says anything about how we will handle this issue, it may already be too late.