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Making Science Enthusiasm Work

Notice: Originally published November 3, 2015 at The Huffington Post.

Water on Mars! Scientist survives on hostile planet! Wherever you look, it seems like something exciting is happening with science. This growing enthusiasm for science is good. But enthusiasm alone will not solve today’s complex and difficult problems. We must turn excitement into meaningful involvement that improves our society, and the practice of science, for everyone’s sake.

Stories about science are full of discovery, heroism, mystery-solving, and wonder. There’s no denying the great visuals: televised NASA missions, Martian landscapes in blockbuster films, lively interviews with Bill Nye the Science Guy or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, even the explosive experimentation of Mythbusters. It doesn’t matter that The Martian isn’t a true story, or that Bill Nye and the Mythbusters crew are professional entertainers. The message is that science is exciting and fun!

Communicating science in this way is no accident. Ask a scientist why she chose her career, for example, and you’ll probably hear about an inspiring early encounter with exciting science. Excitement also builds broad public support. It might not be obvious from our outrageous political discourse, but National Science Board surveys consistently find that Americans support scientific research and think that science and technology issues are important. People may disapprove of a particular scientist or disagree about a specific issue, but exciting science brings people together around shared enthusiasm.

What’s wrong with a little excitement? For one thing, enthusiasm skews our perspective on what deserves public support. Planetary exploration missions, for example, do little to combat drought, environmental devastation, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or a host of other difficult, immediate challenges to our safety and security. But science that solves those problems is not very exciting. Like most scientific research, it involves long hours, little recognition, low funding, and frequent failure. When enthusiasm guides funding decisions, unexciting projects that we need lose out to projects that lift our spirits.

Exciting science can also turn citizens into spectators, lowering the quality of our hard-won American democracy. As science communication scholars have pointed out for decades, the excitement strategy offers few opportunities for public dialogue or challenge. Flashy visuals and familiar story lines reduce complex issues and the hard work of public debate to a binary thumbs-up/thumbs-down exercise on the latest movie or press release. Take water on Mars, for example. Are we discussing why we’re spending taxpayer money to find water on another planet when we can’t get Earth’s water to drought areas? No. Are you not entertained?

So how can we stay excited about science while meeting the challenges of hard problems in a democratic society? Making “benefits to society” the highest single criterion for public science funding would be a good start. But why not think bigger? How about integrating public employment programs with public science programs, so we retrain unemployed workers from many backgrounds and perspectives to participate in scientific research that benefits society? If we’re going to fix things with science, let’s get everyone involved.

Of course, exciting science is obviously a better option than no science at all. And ideally we would pursue all lines of inquiry all the time, exciting or not. But that’s not our reality. We live in a democratic society with limited resources. The American public regularly engages in important decision making about public research and investment. Science should be part of that process, not just to show off the latest pictures, but as one part of multi-sided debate and discussion that engages a wide range of public concerns.

It’s good to get people excited about science. Science is awesome! But let’s not forget that science is a human endeavor built by, and for, real people. We can’t stop at enthusiasm if we all want to move forward together. However we go about it, we must turn excitement into meaningful involvement that’s good for science and good for society.

Michael S. Evans

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2017