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Science in crisis? Go on then, prove it

Many pro-science arguments rest on the belief science is simply a “very good thing”. Raul Lazaro

Science in crisis? Go on then, prove it

Litanies about how poorly science and the science “brand” are doing have become a little too common for my liking.

The most recent notable example came courtesy of the EU’s Science, it’s a girl thing campaign.

But it’s not my intention here to rip into this campaign. Rather, it inspired me to re-visit the alleged problems facing science, and to challenge some of the big assumptions that underlie them. I’m talking about assumptions such as:

  • science needs to be sold (better)
  • people are becoming less interested in science/ becoming anti-science
  • not enough people like/ do science
  • brand science is in trouble

As best as I can tell, most of these concerns are poorly (if ever) contextualised and rarely based on good evidence. Actually, even when evidence is presented, the realities are never as straightforward as they are made to appear, and contradictions and unexpressed assumptions are always lurking.

In fact, as has been said before, most of these arguments seem to rest on the implicit belief that science is simply a “very good thing”. And like all very good things, more simply must mean better.

People just don’t like science

One of the big fears I often hear is that not enough people are “into” science. But what does “into” mean here? Studying science? Donating money to science enterprises? Reading New Scientist magazine? Voting for science-based policies?

But let’s nudge these complexities aside for a moment, and paint some positive pictures of science engagement in Australia. In a poll I conducted with two colleagues in 2010, our sample of adult Australians reported being more interested in science than films and sport.

Belis@rio

Furthermore, Australia’s ScienceAlert has more than 1.5m “likes” on Facebook: more than one point five million. By that measure, that makes it literally one of the largest Facebook news sites on the planet.

Clearly quite a few people do like science.

Science enrolments are falling

This report from the Office of the Chief Scientist says science enrolments increased by 30% between 2002 and 2010. Surely this is a very good thing?

Apparently not. Yes it’s growth, but it was the “fourth-lowest growth rate for 2002-2010”. So other disciplines are growing faster than science, and apparently this just isn’t good.

How about this OECD report on people studying science and technology subjects internationally? It suggests overall numbers of enrolments increased up to 2006, but again science and technology as a proportion of all higher education enrolments dropped.

Once more, apparently this is bad. It’s just not really clear why.

We’re running out of scientists

There are regular suggestions in many of the reports I refer to here that we are running out of scientists and/or losing our sci-tech capability. Are we?

Mark Ramsay

Surely one of the best indicators of a failure of supply would be an increase in demand, and with that, an increase in salaries and conditions for our scarce scientists. Thing is, I’ve not seen evidence of this (but please let me know if you have).

Our own Chief Scientist Ian Chubb was quoted in the The Australian just last week saying that PhD graduate scientists these days are lucky to get a (science) job at all, even after two or three post doctorates.

He also notes how their opportunities are further diminished because people don’t have to retire any more, so fewer science jobs become available.

What if we look at government funding via the Australian Research Council (ARC) and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)? If there is a need for more scientists, this must mean they have unallocated funds each grant round?

Actually, they are currently cannot fund around 75-80% of the research grant applications from our existing crop of scientists according to the ARC and NHMRC.

So by these measures, scientists ain’t so scarce after all.

International competitiveness

Another recurring assertion is that we need to be competitive internationally. But competitive on what? And more importantly, to what end?

Last year’s Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2011 shows us to be doing well on many indicators.

2009 publications per 1000 population, by journal quality according to results from the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2011. Alan G. Pettigrew

To begin, it would be negligent to not question the utility of the performance measures themselves and why, exactly, we are using them (as a recent piece Will Grant and I wrote discusses). There are many issues there.

But even assuming we accept the current crop of measures as valid and/or useful, we inevitably find some which don’t see us at, or even near, the top. So what?

The author of the OECD summary above suggests among other things that:

Australia may also need to consider whether its current level of R&D investment in universities and government agencies such as CSIRO is adequate when compared to other small nations, particularly in Scandinavia.

Why is it useful, valid or meaningful to compare us to the Scandinavian countries on science and technology performance?

Simply because they represent “other small nations” like us, it seems. But why is this relevant to our competitiveness on science and technology? And what exactly are we competing for in the first place?

While a sense of competition has some benefits, does a failure to be beating the Danes really suggest a crises in our science and technology capability?

I smell competition for its own sake.

Democracy and social participation

Mark Ramsay

OK, what about participation in society? A common argument here begins: “science and technology are important to everyone because they regularly affect many facets of our daily lives”.

So far, so good. But then this gets taken further: “therefore we need to know more (and more) about science in order to properly/better participate in our democracy”. Getting a bit wobblier now.

You could as easily argue that we should know more about the Australian political system to properly participate in our democracy. Or that laws have a powerful daily influence on us so we should be more law-literate.

Or that we should be much more IT-savvy because computers are ubiquitous. Then there’s medicine, economics, motor maintenance, etc.

How do you argue convincingly for prioritising science above all these?

Are climate sceptics against science?

People aren’t necessarily anti-science if they don’t “believe” in climate change, as some notable meme-busting research by Yale Professor of Psychology Dan Kahan and colleagues attests.

Dan Kahan speaking on: Science Communication as the “New Political Science” for Democracy.

Also, people aren’t usually rejecting the science in climate change debates; they are rejecting positions that don’t align with their own world views. Science itself is rarely the issue.

There is in fact evidence showing that when climate sceptics are presented with science-based solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change, they can be extremely pro-science. As long they don’t involve having to make changes that are personally unpalatable, science solutions are absolutely on the table.

So where are we then?

To be clear, I think science is bloody awesome and I am most certainly “into” it (just look at where I work). What I’m not into are arguments that make we who are into science look self-interested, irrelevant, or just plain silly.

And this is most likely to happen when we make claims about its importance that aren’t well thought through, or well contextualised.

Too often I see people decrying public rejection of science, a lack of science involvement, or failures in our science capacity using arguments that just don’t wash. What they are usually saying underneath it all is: “I like science, science is just a very good thing, everyone should like it too”.

But intrinsic good arguments such as these only appeal to those who already agree.

To reach the unreached, engage the unengaged, and (what the hell), be appreciated and supported, we need to be relevant, useful and interesting to people. You need to be clear about what you’re trying to do, and contextualise it as unambiguously as possible.

You don’t do this by proclamation – you do it by demonstration.

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