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Science — restoring the pride of America

Science — restoring the pride of America
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As the COVID-19 pandemic rages unabated following the holiday celebrations, rollout of the new COVID-19 vaccines falters, further risking thousands of lives. 

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) criticized the lack of a federal vaccination plan “as incomprehensible as it is inexcusable.” He went on to emphasize the need to listen to public health experts and science. This stance is important because a complex society depends on science.  

The past four years science has been actively suppressed and discredited by anti-science and anti-intellectual rhetoric. This has given license to a frightening increase in pseudoscience, vaccine reticence, denial of facts, belief in outlandish conspiracy theories and willful ignorance.  

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In Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” the ghost of Christmas present showed Scrooge two poor children saying, “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both…but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” In this dramatic writing from 177 years ago, ignorance leads to doom unless there is change. We should not ignore this parable. 

During the present pandemic, ignorance and disinformation has indeed brought suffering and death for many. The Ghost continues, “Deny it! Slander those who tell it ye…and make it worse!” We have seen personal attacks and death threats made by COVID-19 deniers against those who tell the truths of the pandemic. 

All citizens should understand the central role of science in society and what science does for them. Towards this goal, science and why it is important must be accurately communicated to the public by scientists and the government.

For as long as humans have been inquisitive about the natural world, practitioners have sought each other out to talk about it. Over time scientists developed their own languages allowing easy and quick communication of technical details and scientific nuances between scientists. But translating these languages for understanding by nonscientists is difficult. As a result, non-scientists’ may reject scientific fact in rebuke of perceived science elitism. 

The information age allows for rapid dissemination of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Emotion-filled, anti-science disinformation is easier to understand and embrace without thinking, evaluating or questioning. Willful ignorance and tribalism increases, and anger and distrust are engendered toward science and scientists.  

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While America’s strength in science and engineering was once a source of national pride and patriotism, it is no longer for many Americans. We must endeavor to return pride in science and understanding of science in the general public. A stark reversal of this trend requires a concerted tripartite educational partnership involving scientists, the non-science public and the government. 

First, scientists must embrace their responsibility to learn how to speak with and capture the imaginations of non-scientists. Professional scientific organizations should expand and publicize their outreach programs, as well as providing seminars and courses to help scientists learn effective ways to communicate science to the general public. They should also develop materials for teaching cutting edge areas of science, such as solar energy, virus emergence and climate change at the K-12 level.

Second, the general public must learn to critically evaluate what they consume from the internet and news. When we demand truthful reporting and check the facts, we avoid the echo chambers of opinion news that match our political leanings. To engender change, education in science and critical thinking must be improved beginning in primary schools.  

This second idea is not new. In 1957 the U.S. was stunned by the Russian launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1. This embarrassment propelled science education in the U.S. at all levels.The result was that the U.S. came to lead the world in science and technology. Science became a centerpiece of national pride. There is no reason we cannot rekindle a similar sea-change. 

Third, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), within the executive branch of the government, provides the president with advice on science, engineering and technology. The Biden administration must quickly restore the functions of the OSTP, which have greatly deteriorated over the past four years.

Science, engineering and technology have been, and must remain, the major driving forces in America’s future. Reflective of the dependence of the U.S. economy and world leadership on science and technology, the OSTP should be recreated as the Department of Science and Technology with a cabinet-level secretary.

This department would interface with other departments, institutes and centers to bring all government infrastructure to bear on dealing with energy, space, climate change, health care and pandemics, present and future. Most importantly this department should interface with the Department of Education to improve science education and teach critical thinking at the K-12 levels.

We learned from the Ghost of Christmas Present that ignorance leads to doom — unless there is change. We should heed that warning, embrace science, and ignite lasting change in 2021.  

James Alwine is an emeritus professor and a virologist, he is a fellow of the American Academy for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Lynn Enquist is an emeritus professor and a virologist.  He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Microbiology. Felicia Goodrum Sterling is a 2018 Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project, a professor and virologist.