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With science under siege in 2017, scientists regrouped and fought back: 5 essential reads

Posted on 11 January 2018 by Guest Author

by Maggie Villiger, Science + Technology Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

2017 may well be remembered as the year of alternative facts and fake news. Truth took a hit, and experts seemed to lose the public’s trust. Scientists felt under siege as the Trump administration purged information from government websites, appointed inexperienced or adversarial individuals to science-related posts and left important advisory positions empty. Researchers braced for cuts to federally funded science.

So where did that leave science and its supporters? Here we spotlight five stories from our archive that show how scholars took stock of where scientists stand in this new climate and various ways to consider the value their research holds for society.

1. A risk to standing up for science

In April, the March for Science mobilized more than a million protesters worldwide to push back against what they saw as attacks on science and evidence-based policy. But some people in the research community worried about a downside to scientists being perceived as advocates.

Emily Vraga, assistant professor in political communication at George Mason University, put the conundrum this way:

“On one hand, scientists have relevant expertise to contribute to conversations about public policy…. On the other hand, scientists who advocate may risk losing the trust of the public.”

Maintaining that trust is imperative for scientists, both to be able to communicate public risks appropriately and to preserve public funding for research, she wrote.

Vraga and her colleagues’ research suggests that scientists don’t lose credibility when they advocate for policies based on their expertise. But there’s a distinction to be made between advocacy and mere partisanship – statements motivated by the science are received differently than if they’re perceived as driven by political beliefs.

2. Rhetorical tools at the ready

Protesting is one thing, communicating a message is another. Peter Cedric Rock Smith, CC BY-NC-ND

With the feeling that there’s a “war on science” afoot, savvy scientists are thinking about how to defend their work. University of Washington professor of communication Leah Ceccarelli says they can look toward the field of rhetoric for help in how to get their messages across. She writes:

“Before dismissing this recommendation as a perverse appeal to slink into the mud or take up the corrupted weapons of the enemy, keep in mind that in academia, ‘rhetoric’ does not mean rank falsehoods, or mere words over substance.”

It’s about building persuasive arguments, built on solid foundations, she says. Rhetoricians study effective communication – and they’re happy to open their toolbox to scientists.

Indeed, the science of science communication is becoming a hot area of inquiry, as practitioners investigate and disseminate various techniques for effectively spreading accurate scientific information.

3. What you miss out on when science gets cut

Scientists are always scrambling to secure funding for their research, and during the first year of the Trump administration, it seemed science projects were consistently on the budget chopping block.

Christopher Keane, the vice president for research at Washington State University, made the case that federal funding for science ultimately revs up regional economies, particularly when scholars within academia join forces with entrepreneurs in the private sector:

Thousands of companies can trace their roots to federally funded university research. And since the majority of federally funded research takes place at America’s research universities – often in concert with federal labs and private research partners – these spinoff companies are often located in their local communities all across the country.”

4. Slashing science projects hurts workers

Ohio State University economist Bruce Weinberg described how a unique data set allowed him and his colleagues to actually follow the money on federally funded scientific research. Using administrative data, they were able to identify everyone paid to work on a research project, not just the few who appear as authors on any culminating journal articles.

“This is valuable because we’re able to identify students and staff, who may be less likely to author papers than faculty and postdocs but who turn out to be an important part of the workforce on funded research projects. It’s like taking into account everyone who works in a particular store, not just the manager and owner.”

The majority of people employed on research projects turn out to be somewhere in the training pipeline, whether undergraduates, graduate students or postdocs.

And to do all that work, Weinberg points out, labs need to purchase everything from “computers and software, to reagents, medical imaging equipment or telescopes, even to lab mice and rats.” Cut the federal funding for science and the economic effects will ripple out far beyond just university science buildings.

5. Basic research powers later patents

Skeptics may wonder: What’s the big deal? So we take a few years off from funding some basic research. Does basic research really matter? As Northwestern University’s Benjamin F. Jones and Mohammad Ahmadpoor put it, the:

“‘ivory tower’ view of academic endeavors suggests that science is an isolated activity that rarely pays off in practical application. Related is the idea that marketplace innovation rarely relies on the work of universities or government labs.”

But is that right? To find out if basic research actually does lead to usable practical advances, they designed a study to investigate the links between patentable inventions and scientific research. Jones and Ahmadpoor created a “social network” style map, which connects patents and science papers using the reference citations in each. They found that:

“Among research articles that receive at least one citation, a full 80 percent could be linked forward to a future patent. Meanwhile, 61 percent of patents linked backward to at least one research article.”

It’s impossible to predict which basic research projects will be important in the marketplace, but they wrote that a very high share of scientific research does link “forward to usable practical advances. Most of the linkages are indirect, showing the manifold and unexpected ways” in which basic research can ultimately pay off.


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Comments 1 to 2:

  1. Linking Science to Potential Private Interest Benefit can be a very Damaging Game. People wanting a Damaging Unsustainable Private Interest Result have a proven Competitive advantage. The game must be Played very carefully to achieve a Good Result. Clear Good Objectives with aligned rules and strict enforcement effectively limiting what can be gotten away with are essential, and is clearly what is missing from the developed games of popularity and profitability.

    My understanding is that achieving/improving the Sustainable Development Goals (which include climate action based on climate science), is essential for the future of humanity (a robust diversity of humanity fitting into the robust diversity of life on this amazing planet - Darwin's survival of the Fittest). Though the Sustainable Development Goals are rather recent (2015), the fundamental good objective for that understanding is not new, it is just missing-in-action too much today (and through the past several decades).

    Any effort to increase awareness and understanding of what is going on is potentially Helpful. So Pure Science research and reporting should be fundamentally defended/supported.

    The application of awareness and understanding, or deciding where to focus efforts to increase awareness and understanding, is when it becomes important to differentiate the Helpful from Harmful.

    Raising awareness of the potential for Private Interest benefit/profit-making by a sub-set of humanity from the application/pursuit of increased awareness and understanding is potentially dangerous. What is dangerous is a lack of alignment on Good Objectives for any application of awareness and understanding. And the Good Objectives are to achieve, and improve, the Sustainable Development Goals. The ways to abuse the power of misleading marketing, including misleading reporting by information media, is one clear example of harmful research focus and application of awareness and understanding.

    Bringing attention to the potential for Private Interest benefit is only helpful if the objectives used to determine the acceptability of Private Interests are aligned with, supportive of, the Global Public Interest governing objective of achieving/improving the Sustainable Development Goals.

    Without alignment on that Good Objective basis, setting priorities for research funding can incorrectly lead to efforts to develop damaging unsustainable applications. The result can also be the termination of funding for research that may produce increased awareness and understanding that is contrary to Private Interests, such as increasing the awareness and understanding that a developed Private Interest should not be as popular and profitable as it is because it is actually unsustainable or damaging.

    Another downfall of linking basic science to the development of Private Interest pursuits of profit is the potential for people with wealth to incorrectly influence research to be 'In their Private Interest'. Examples of this are 'think tanks with objectives contrary to the Good Global Public Interest' being populated by University researchers, or faculties of 'supposed higher learning and better understanding' that gear their programs of education and research to 'Suit the interests of those Private Interests in order to get more funding'.

    As an example, the recent Conservative Government in Canada deliberately evaluated what research 'they thought would be beneficial' and cut funding for any science that was 'contrary to their Interests'. They also insisted that publicly funded researchers only be permitted to make public presentations that the Political Minders had vetted/screened/edited for acceptability of alignment with 'Their Interests'.

    Similar things were/are done by recent Republican leadership in the USA, and by other groups of unhelpful/harmful pursuers of Private Interest around the world.

    Note: I try to avoid appearing political, but the governments in Canada and the USA that clearly did significant amounts of unhelpful/harmful Private Interest pursuits related to Science that I pointed out as examples, called/call themselves “Conservative” and “Republican”.

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  2. The pure sciences are extremely valuable and have lead to numerous technologies, but are often slow to generate profits, and have historically been neglected by the private sector. As a result much pure science is publicly funded, a very sensible idea.

    Basic economics 101 says that free markets don't solve all problems, or create all necessary goods. Even Einsteins discoveries eventually lead to numerous inventions, and still inspire inventions today.

    But there is also a "value" in simply understanding the world, just as playing sport has a value to us. Science has value even if it doesn't make a profit, or lead to an invention.

    It's deplorable that the White House has cut funding for basic sciences, and made unqualified and partisan appointments, and their rhetoric about global warming conspiracies and draining the swamp shows its all politically motivated, as opposed to economically driven. Trump keeps telling us how "great" the economy is, so it's clearly not economically driven.

    Unfortunately public funding of science is open to manipulation by politicians. Sadly The White Hoouse is playing with even more picking of prefered projects by politicians kown as "earmarking" as below:

    This is a most unfortunate development, that leads to wasted spending to reward donors.

    Of course not every science issue can be funded, but decisions are better made by officials, rather than politicians, and ideally a body separate from government, or a bipartisan committee at the very least. Ideology and politics or beliefs are no basis to decide science funding, and instead it has to be on costs and technical merits of whether research breaks new ground or is significant. 

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