james carroll

Bridging the science gap

When scientists are cut off from the broader culture, both sides are impoverished


A warning to readers: The following alarm about the multifaceted danger of defunding science in the United States is being sounded by a guy who (to my undying shame) flunked high school chemistry. If a right-brainer like me sees what’s wrong with the growing gap between scientific endeavor and public support for science, the problem must be serious. And the gap will grow exponentially under the Paul Ryan budget plan.

Entomologist May R. Berenbaum writes in the current issue of Daedalus, “The US scientific enterprise, more so than in most nations, depends on a public not only supportive of federal funding for basic research but also capable of crafting and adopting policies based on solid evidence.”


It is common to decry the flat-earth attitudes of large parts of the American electorate, the climate-change deniers or those who reject evolution. But the scientific enterprise in recent decades has pushed so far through frontiers of knowledge — from genetics to plant-engineering to nanotechnology to nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy — that the unprecedented advances in the very shape of the human condition that are now possible remain, for most, unimaginable. The sophistication of cutting-edge science is beyond the grasp even of well-educated and science-accepting people. How many actually understood, for example, the much trumpeted Higgs boson news in July? Hailed as a world-historic discovery laying bare the subatomic structure of the universe, proof of the existence of the so-called God particle generated masses of scratched heads, quizzical looks, and shrugged shoulders — mine included.

This gap is not just another indictment of failing American schools, which equip relatively few with authentic quantitative literacy, as much as it is a signal of the truly awesome leaps the most brilliant minds among us are now making. The new Daedalus is called “Science in the 21st Century.” It shows how technology is key to this new situation, since the collecting and processing of data that once took years or months now routinely takes place in hours. The joining of machines and the inquiring brain has moved science into a new realm of endeavor — yet for non-scientists, that realm is a foreign country.

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When the scientific enterprise becomes cut off from the broader culture, both science and that culture are impoverished. But the dangers go deeper than that. The ethical challenges of revolutionary alterations in nature must not be left to the narrowly focused experts who discover or invent them. Their narrow focus may be appropriate and necessary, but may also be disqualifying when it comes to a larger moral reckoning with the consequences of innovation. Questions raised by genetic engineering, for example, properly belong to the entire society that is affected by them. Will the world’s already shameful rich-poor divide soon be amplified by the divide between a genetically enhanced elite (stronger, taller, healthier, smarter, longer-lived) and the vastly larger population impaired by ancient vulnerabilities of unaltered genes? This is not a question to be left to geneticists — nor to profit-seekers who would put enhancement up for sale.

The best way to assure that science is at the service of society, and not merely of its privileged and powerful segments, is to make sure that society itself is its main sponsor. That has been the genius of the American public funding system. The money paid in taxes by ordinary citizens has been the dominant resource for research and development, which undergirds the right ordinary citizens have to the benefits of R&D. Federal funding of science, that is, not only drives the scientific enterprise, but shores up the link between that enterprise and the culture.

Enter the Ryan Budget. According to the Center for American Progress, the savage cuts in federal spending that Ryan proposes include a 24 percent reduction in science and technology research and development from 2010 levels, which were already significantly lower than science funding levels of the 1990s. This radical abandonment of public support for science would not only gut the enterprise (leaving, say, disease to grow, the food supply to shrink). Equally disturbing would be the mortal weakening of the precious tie between the broad citizenry and the ingenious project of human self-surpassing. Up till now, science has belonged to everybody — chemistry flunkers included. Whose will it be if Ryan gets his way?

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
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