It appears that more and more people these days distrust ‘science’ as a valued element in public decisions. For some…science should not be trusted because it doesn’t blend well with a belief system they hold to be more valuable than the critical thinking demanded in scientific-method research…and for others, it should not be trusted because it’s perceived that corporate and partisan interests have succeeded in corrupting it. Here we are in the 21st century…with a huge appetite for science-based technology and efficiency…but the public seems to be increasingly conflicted about the contributions science can make in public decisions. It’s no wonder that our kids are falling so far behind the rest of the world in science literacy and competence. If we’re going to find solutions to some of our most complex and inter-connected dilemmas, the public will have to demand and to financially support independent, peer-reviewed scientific research for the issues that are foundational in our most troubling public dilemmas.
When Galileo defended the findings of Copernicus that the Earth circles the Sun rather than being the center of the universe, he was found to be a suspect of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church. From that time forward…for the rest of his life, he was under house arrest with his writings being banned. Even so, Galileo’s work was so meticulous and ordered that Stephen Hawking said he ‘was responsible for the birth of modern science.’ This is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic, historical examples of belief stifling science…but still, many people of faith these days feel threatened rather than comforted by the painstaking care and honesty of research-based, scientific efforts.
True enough…science is in the business of replacing beliefs, assumptions and superstitions with verifiable and predictable findings that can provide a trustworthy foundation for personal and public decisions. Through the past few centuries, science has systematically added to the longevity and quality of life in remarkable ways…yet, plenty of mysteries remain for the realm of belief, faith and religion. As a person of faith and a teacher of comparative religion, I see no threat to faith in the modest and relatively slow progress of science. While some may see any science-based answers to life’s questions as a threat to faith itself, I am convinced that the vastness of the universe and its mysteries will never be exhausted or explained by even our best scientific endeavors. As long as science focuses on the natural world without an express agenda to dilute religious belief, I will continue to see its contributions as positive for the betterment of humanity and the natural world.
However, corporate domination in the funding of science is an even more troubling concern. Science is also in the trust-building business…so the idea that the scientific community can be directed by profit-making organizations is an anathema. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence for this kind of distrust. Many universities and colleges are hopelessly dependent on corporate grants for scientific research. Does this mean they’re then doing corrupted or biased science…no, not at all. But…they may be doing the wrong science in the scramble for grant dollars.
I realize that some believe scientific evidence can be bought for any corporate or special interest agenda. This may be true at times…but what really bothers me is that profit-motivated funding is most likely directing scientific research away from breakthroughs that could serve the public best. We can always depend on large corporations to keep their bottom line in view…but that doesn’t usually include altruism. We should be concerned that if corporate interests control the research agendas of our universities and colleges, who will extend scientific inquiry to support small businesses…or environmental concerns…or public safety…or health interests? I believe our institutions of higher learning…particularly our land-grant and public universities…have a responsibility to pursue research that serves the needs of all…not just corporate interests. The dominance of corporate funding in scientific research damages this goal.
Science is essential! While our public policy choices will not be decided by science alone, we cannot face many of our most challenging public dilemmas without a firm scientific foundation. But…how can we reclaim this foundational component of public decisions? If we don’t discuss our trust of the scientific method, I fear we’ll just continue to talk past each other on some very important topics…climate change…environmental concerns…population growth…sustainability…carrying capacity…over-fishing the oceans, etc. Ultimately, our values will shape public policy decisions…but our values are many times applied to real-world situations where sound, independent, peer-reviewed scientific research illuminates our decisions. I believe we need to reclaim science as a public policy tool…so, let’s talk about the role of science in technology and in everyday decisions.