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Just when we need it most, science is in danger

It’s time to renew the compact between science and society.

A March for Science in Berlin in 2017. The sign says "there are no alternatives to facts."
A March for Science in Berlin in 2017. The sign says "there are no alternatives to facts."Markus Schreiber

As American voters each cast a ballot in next month’s election, it’s hard to fathom just how much is crammed onto that single piece of paper — divergent visions about democracy, the rule of law, the meaning of justice, and the aspiration to fulfill our founding creed that we are all created equal.

There’s also one more thing we’re deciding — the future of science.

Science has long been the country’s greatest engine for health, economic prosperity, and national security. Today, the need for science is greater than ever as we face an avalanche of challenges unlike at any time in history. We’re battling a pandemic that’s already killed more than 210,000 Americans — with enormous disparities based on race, ethnicity, and age — and 1 million people worldwide. The long-predicted impacts of climate change are being borne out in devastating fashion. We face the near trillion-dollar impact of Alzheimer’s disease on an aging population; the rise of bacterial drug resistance rendering life-saving antibiotics ineffective; cybersecurity threats to the nation’s infrastructure and personal privacy; and the power of artificial intelligence to undermine truth through deep fakes. Beyond the challenges, there are also amazing opportunities to reach for — from quantum computing to cures for cancer.

I’m reminded of Matt Damon’s character in the film “The Martian.” Stranded on Mars and knowing that no one is coming to the rescue any time soon, he declares: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option. I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

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Yet just when we need science most, the compact between science and society has become dangerously frayed. The most obvious sign is the spectacle of political officials pressuring health agencies to replace science-based guidance with their own pronouncements. But the problem runs deeper.

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The compact was forged just after World War II. Science had helped win the war — with radar, early computers, penicillin, and the atomic bomb. Deciding that we’d need science to succeed in peacetime as well, the nation began investing in scientific research and training at universities. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, America went into overdrive: Science became a matter of national survival.

America mostly bought into the fundamental tenets of science — that truth comes from evidence, not authority; from honesty, not advocacy. We trusted that science would discover what’s true, technology would show what’s possible, and society would reap the benefits.

As a kid growing up in New York City in the 1960s, I was steeped in that worldview. Although we didn’t have much money, my mother, who raised my brother and me, let us stay home from school to watch space launches and dragged us repeatedly to the 1964-65 World’s Fair (admission for kids: $1), where we saw people fly in jetpacks and visited DuPont’s Wonderful World of Chemistry and General Electric’s Carousel of Progress. To an 8-year-old (still largely unaware of societal tensions and injustices that would soon become apparent), it seemed a time of limitless possibility.

Society’s investments in science paid enormous dividends — vaccines, computer technology, global positioning systems, the Internet, web searches to access the world’s knowledge, molecular biology, the sequencing of the human genome, solar panels, and more. Science gave birth to huge industries and created millions of jobs.

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Since the turn of the century, though, society’s compact with science has been falling into disrepair. Science has been facing increasing polarization, with ever-stronger doubts and denial, political interference, and efforts to slash federal investment in research. The problems predate the Trump administration, and it’s important to understand the tensions.

A key problem is that science often reveals truths that challenge economic interests — provoking aggressive efforts to fight back. When science found that cigarettes cause cancer, tobacco companies paid people to put up a smoke screen. In this century, climate change research has been met with vehement denial by fossil fuel interests. Rather than debating solutions, opponents dismiss evidence — rising global temperatures, massive forest fires from Australia to the Arctic Circle, stronger and more frequent hurricanes, glaciers retreating — as unrelated flukes. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency has been standing scientific integrity on its head — barring academic researchers who receive EPA funding from serving on its advisory committees and disregarding public health studies that protect patient confidentiality on the grounds that they violate scientific “transparency.”

But there are other problems as well. Science sometimes seems to overreach — turning valid hope into hype by promising solutions just around the corner. And people sometimes want explanations that science can’t yet provide — leaving a void easily filled by conspiracy theories, such as the long-debunked falsehood that vaccines cause autism.

It’s also become glaringly apparent that the economic benefits of science are unevenly distributed — going disproportionately to men, white people, and tech hubs on the West Coast and in the Northeast. Without a more inclusive approach, the general public’s support for science will wane.

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Finally, we have to recognize that good science doesn’t guarantee utopian outcomes. Things can go off the rails — the Wonderful World of Chemistry can produce carcinogens and toxic waste; the Internet designed to give us all the world’s information can deluge us with disinformation; and social media that was supposed to bring us together can instead tear us apart.

What’s to be done? Science and society are increasingly out of sync, but progress depends on their partnership. It’s time to refresh the compact.

Some things are non-negotiable. Science’s commitment to proceed carefully, require evidence, and admit error may seem like a sucker’s strategy in an age of political bluster, but it’s what makes science succeed in the long run. We’ll need to keep fighting hard for truth.

But much broader conversations will be needed to ensure that science benefits society and society trusts science. In the 1960s, decisions were largely up to scientists and politicians. In the 2020s, the decision-making must include a much wider range of people, who will need to be prepared to grapple thoughtfully with hard choices.

As a small step, I have teamed up with the Boston Globe Opinion team to develop a podcast series, called Brave New Planet, focused on technologies that have amazing potential upsides but could leave us a lot worse off if we don’t make wise choices. Examples include making deep fakes as convincing as truth, modifying the earth’s atmosphere to mitigate climate change, turning warfighting over to autonomous robots, letting computers advise companies on whom to hire and judges on whom to jail, and releasing new genetic technologies into the wild. Our goal is not to advocate for particular answers, but to help people step into their roles as stewards of a brave new planet.

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On Earth as on Mars, Matt Damon’s rallying cry will need to guide us through the challenges ahead. It’s the only shot we have.

Eric Lander is president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.