The problems facing science


How many of you have been to a scientific lecture about research that has been done or done a course in science at school or at university? Did you get to throw little chunks of sodium into water and wait for the explosion, or dissect a mouse to see what its interior looked like? What about going on field trips to look at fault lines or volcanoes; fossil beds with trilobites and cephalopods and so forth?

Did it inspire you to find out more? Did it completely turn you off and make you wish you were doing a Bachelor of Arts instead of a Bachelor of Science?

I see recurring problems with how people receive science as a discipline. They range from teachers being frustrated at the restrictions on what and how they can impart it to their students; from people turning away from science degrees at Universities because they do not think it will justify itself in terms of their job prospects; members of the public – who might have never seriously engaged with any credible scientific papers, presentations or otherwise – criticizing scientists for altering predictions or theories. Among other issues.

But perhaps the worst is the fear that policy makers seem to have of it. Perhaps law makers do not realize they are giving off negative signals when they talk about it. Perhaps they are deliberately giving off bad vibes because the science on issues such as climate change goes against their beliefs. It is nevertheless shown in the lack of investment into research, science and technology with the percentage of our G.D.P. invested into it staying at about 1.0%, which is where it has been the last 20 years.

The range of issues where science has been controversial is diverse. Environmental science, technology, medicine, energy, natural hazards among others are just a few of the range that courts public controversy.

One example that has saddened me is the tendency of members of the public – not all, and possibly just a vocal few – who think that scientists are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives by doing things such as drilling into the Alpine Fault. The purpose of the drilling was to understand how geophysical conditions around the fault change with time. It sought to determine heat flow, the rate of underground movement of the fault and how the rock strata was deforming in response to the heat and pressure around it. The idea behind this is to build up a picture of stresses along the fault and hopefully eventually give an idea as to how long we have before it all comes unstuck at 20,000km/h.

It saddens me because this research is essential in a quake prone country like New Zealand where we are racing the fault to be as ready as we can for the eventual Alpine Fault rupture. This research is going to be the basis on which scientists make recommendations to policy makers who are then going to have to give legal effect to them. The moves around New Zealand to make the owners of buildings that are considered quake prone either bring them up to a building code standard where it will survive an earthquake and let the occupants out safely are for good reasons.

Definitely the most controversial is climate change. From out right denial by well known figures such as Donald Trump, to some believing that we only have a couple of decades left before the man made component becomes irreversible no matter what happens, science has its critics. There are energy companies believing for sake of profit margins and their corporate shareholders believing it is a hoax. And there is Greenpeace and other environmental organizations being certain that only a “carbon neutral” world can check the effects of human activity on the climate.

We will not fully know whether a 1°C or 2°C change in the planets temperature will have terminal consequences, major consequences or just mild consequences. Climate scientists have given compelling reasoning to believe it is the former. Yet by the same token the particles per million (P.P.M.) of carbon in the atmosphere have risen to 400+ for the first time in millions of years and the rate of increase suggests it is going to climb further yet. These changes will affect things such as ocean temperatures with flow on effects to marine life, those species that live of marine life and ultimately, humans.

But we will not know how or what unless we invest in the science. We will not know the impact on the ecosystem unless we invest in the science.

And the same goes for funding a credible cure for cancer. Unless we invest in the sciences and have a broad discussion about its purpose, its strengths and its weaknesses, we will not know what that cure is.

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