Science in the real world (1): Declaration of interdependence

Can the gap between the scientific enterprise and the rest of society (the "real world") be bridged? Many people view scientists as scruffy and geeky. In return, we think of nonscientists as stupid and greedy. Scientists scorn others for their insistence on "practically relevant" results, believing they just don't understand that scientific research takes time and cannot deliver magical cures on demand. Nonscientists often feel we are indulging in our private hobbies, paid for with public money. To keep us in check, compensation for young scientists is miserable. Then we are looked down on for not being able to make a decent living. As a case in point, this Web site would not really be necessary if everything were hunky-dory.

What are the causes of this separation? And what can we do to (re-)establish good connections? I want to open this new series of columns with a declaration of the interdependence of science and society. Somewhere along the line, both scientists and the society in which we live have forgotten that we are actually striving for the same goals.

We as scientists are in the business of generating, accumulating, disseminating, and applying high-quality knowledge about the world. In doing so, we make a fundamental contribution to the goal of every individual, every group, or even humankind: survival. And, of course, we are humans ourselves and in a good position to see how our results can be beneficial for humanity.

Our modern world is simply unimaginable without the fruits of scientific and technological labour. Our labours have shaped the way we live to such an extent that this obvious fact is rarely acknowledged. It has made us the most successful species on the planet, in the sense that we are changing the face of Earth to our own specifications. Yet, the scientific community, which continues to pull off this amazing feat every day, does not get the respect that matches this accomplishment.

An obvious explanation is that we live on different time scales; due to technology, the pace of life has increased, but scientific results are slow to trickle down to everyday life. In a society that is easily bored, these accomplishments hardly show up on the radar, or rather, television, screen. This partly explains the push by policy-makers in the last decade for more applied research. There is nothing wrong with this; it is even necessary. But it should not be a substitute for basic research or a trick to get results within a 4-year election term. Long-term research programs are vital; otherwise, the production pipeline of our knowledge business will dry out pretty quickly.

Our fault may be that our ability to understand and manipulate the world has made us complacent and arrogant. Scientists tend to be introverts, with an extreme focus on the things that interest them, and they often have little patience for people of slower wit. However, it does not help our case if we fail to communicate what we do and its importance, while also paying attention to the level of knowledge and point of view of those with whom we are interacting.

In many ways, we scientists are the victims of our own success. The products of science and technology--antibiotics, binoculars, computers, detergents, endoscopes, facsimile (fax) machines--have become so all-pervasive that we don't even notice them anymore. The fact that the modern age totally relies on science and technology is rarely acknowledged. And scientists rarely get the proper credit. Our reward is in no comparison with, for example, the compensation of professional soccer players who have only an ephemeral impact on the world at large. Take out the top 1000 overpaid sports heroes, and the world will become a duller place. Remove the top 1000 best scientists and technologists, and the economy will gradually grind to a halt.

Recently, The Economist concluded that half of the growth of a modern economy is due to innovation. * Maybe the potential top 1000 innovators have already accepted jobs elsewhere.

Here in the Netherlands, the importance of science seems to have been totally forgotten. Our last centre-right cabinet did not even mention the word in its coalition agreement (luckily, these officials have imploded, and new elections are due in January next year). Although our government likes to talk about the "knowledge-driven economy," it does not put its money where its mouth is. The big cuts in the higher education budget have stirred huge protests, and this week students have flocked the streets of The Hague and Amsterdam to make their point.

So, how do scientists solve this problem? How do we bridge the gap? As with most interhuman problems, communication is the key here. We need to adopt some sound business methods to sell our results more effectively. We should work on marketing and pricing.

We should go out and explain the importance of science. But, we should also start listening and asking other members of society what they see as the important issues. What are the major problems in the 21st century that need to be solved?

In more practical terms, you can visit your high school and talk to the kids about being a scientist and the impact of your science. A bigger project would be to start your own company and turn your knowledge and ideas into products and services that people actually want to buy.

We have to explain to people that science and technology have made our present prosperity possible. But we also need to have the self-esteem to ask a higher price for our services. How can others take us seriously if we are willing to deliver high-end results for mass-market prices? We cannot deliver today, or tomorrow, but we will do so in 5 years, in 50 years, and again in the next century. We have a track record of several hundred years to back up this claim!

Most importantly, we have to emphasize that we are all in this together, that the fate of humankind in the future depends on our understanding today. We don't want to make a quick buck. We are responsible citizens who want our children, and our grandchildren, to live in a prosperous society. We scientists have a lot to offer, and we are more than willing to share our knowledge to turn this world into a better place.

"WE, therefore, the young readers of Science's Next Wave, (...) solemnly Publish and Declare, that these united Endeavours are, and of Right ought to be, INTERDEPENDENT."

* "Thanksgiving for Innovation," The Economist Technology Quarterly, 12-13, 21 September 2002

Editor's Note: This is the first part of our new column on science and society, Science in the Real World. Reactions to Dr. Stijn Oomes can be send to

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