By Shannon – I was a Girl Scout. In the “pre-Interwebs” era of my childhood, Scouts were a great way to educate and entertain children, particularly in rural areas like mine where other activities might not be available. One of the main activities of scouting is going to camps – especially in the summer. There, we learned what is now called “The Scout Rule”:
Leave a place better than you found it.
As an adult I still try to leave things better than I found them. Whatever I endeavor: teaching, committees, experiments, organizing meetings, I try to make them better than before. Though I often fail at this, it is my personal motto and purpose.
The road to tenure is long and stressful, and most of us are too busy running to stop and think where we are going. After I became an Associate Professor last January, I finally stopped to think – how am I, really, making science better?
Existential questions like these are often terrifying, but I argue necessary for every human. There are many ways to make the world better. There are also many ways to make science better. Undoubtedly, the most important contribution I will ever make as a scientist are the people I leave behind me. The students, postdocs, and collaborators I work with are the most important scientific output one can have. Scientists are knowledge makers. Our stock in trade is ideas. People are the knowledge bearers.
However, those ideas also impact the world as well. There are different kinds of scientific impact. There are studies that address a key question in science or provide a specific insight into an observable phenomenon that can propel a field (or multiple fields) forward. There are studies that offer a unique and heretofore unknown aspect of the universe. There are studies that offer solutions to a problem, such as treatment for a disease or a new technology. And, there are studies that provide important insights for the public and policy makers to enact laws and regulations.
Nevertheless, there are distinct viewpoints as to which of these are actually “making the world better”. Scientists often lament that the public doesn’t appreciate the worth of basic science. While basic science provides essential insights that will lead to other discoveries, it might not offer immediate and tangible impacts on people’s lives. Ironically, scientists often don’t appreciate “public” science either. Monitoring pollution or testing antibiotics may not offer the “Gee Wiz!” knowledge of a new neural circuit algorithm or a newly identified protein, but it is undeniably essential for providing insights for environmental policy or antimicrobial resistance.
Which is more important? Isolating a new protein or monitoring weather patterns?
This is a false dichotomy. As educators and members of the public, we need to teach non-scientists that good science is not just instant-gratification discoveries but those that build knowledge over time. This knowledge can then be used in many ways to benefit this planet intellectually and physically.
Likewise, scientists have to learn that good science does not necessarily require unpronounceable acronyms, fancy statistics, or advanced instrumentation. Sometimes, just collecting bugs for 40 years can reveal an urgent and essential need to monitor the cataclysmic loss of our biodiversity.
There are many ways to leave this world better than we found it. Maybe, if we all try to answer that question, and discuss it with each other, we will be able to see the worth of every citizen – scientist and non-scientist alike. In the end, our communication, and our entire planet, will be the better for it.