Citizens of Science

Society will be better served by having highly educated and well-trained graduates working not only in the research laboratories of academia, but also in the corporate and business world, in schools and colleges, in public policymaking and regulatory bodies. – L.J. Escote-Carlson

A seasoned scientist can and will – often at great length – pontificate on the changing nature of our chosen trade. The usual culprit as the harbinger of change is the graduate student. These insidious ones act today as a trainee, and tomorrow a leader.

There exists an attitude among scientists that the work done in the laboratory is somehow an abstraction of reality. Only in the halls of universities, research institutes, and commercial laboratories do we find the purest form of knowledge, separate from the tedium of the everyday rigmarole. The increasing separation developed, both mentally and physically, during one’s graduate years can instill the idea of the ivory tower as a nearly sacrosanct accumulation of minds, glassware and computing equipment.

Has the public finally received the message that science is not to be tampered with? That it is a genuinely holistic vocation, that employs the curious, eccentric, and driven? It is unclear whether many scientists subscribe to the above notions.

The non-scientific public is at a crossroads, in effect. Never before have they been able to utilize the benefits of scientific advancement as they can today. From antiretroviral therapies to autonomous robotic vacuum cleaners, people today have gained immense benefits from decades of scientific research. But do they realize this?

As Hartz and Chappell note in Worlds Apart, scientific funding is increasing, and has been since the early 1960’s. However, what is also noted is that public funding for scientific research is declining. This means that private funds are making up a larger and larger proportion of the money entering research laboratories today.

Why does this situation exist? Is there a connection to the lack of public interest in scientific matters? If one examines the current airwaves in North America, one will find a dearth of thoughtful and intelligent programming, as compared to the sheer volume of intellectual junk food. Science has a difficult time competing for market share. When science does receive coverage, it is usually under headings like: Technology, Space, or Environment. Rarely does basic science deserve its due.

Do scientists have a responsibility to further the cause of basic science research? Are we meant to be bold citizens in our field and champion our cause? In this issue of Hypothesis, Lafrance examines the role of the science centre in science education, while LaPierre bemoans the lack of scientific knowledge in potential mates. Other authors present viewpoints that touch on several facets of this very complex issue.

It is important today, more than ever, to help society find its comfort level with science. There are legal, moral, and even constitutional debates raging in North America around scientific issues. Even an avowed scientific expert will comment that keeping up with intellectual explosions in science are difficult enough, but perhaps we should avoid navel-gazing, and affect the course of change today.

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