Opinion: Who We Work For

On winning hearts, minds, and votes for science

Nov 5, 2013
Mary Woolley

WIKIMEDIA, WHITE HOUSEIn chartering the National Academy of Sciences 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln had the wisdom to establish a body that would provide scientific advice to the nation. Lincoln also had the wisdom to know that science doesn’t advance in a vacuum; he knew that there are political frames for science, which must serve—and be perceived to serve—the public’s interest. “Public sentiment is everything,” he said in 1858. “Without it, nothing can succeed; with it, nothing can fail.”

Public opinion polls document strong support for scientific research, including for basic research, but few Americans can name a living scientist or a place where research is conducted. Researchers, with careers on the line, can and must do a better job of articulating the value of science, because the virtual invisibility of our enterprise is not destined to activate general sentiment in our favor.

It’s tempting to think that biomedical science has “won” the hearts of the public, but that would be wrong. To say we have won the hearts of the public would be to imply that we have worked at it. In fact, researchers rarely work to win the hearts and minds of the public, rarely demonstrate accountability to the public in ways non-scientists can understand, and rarely talk about how science affects the quality of life of all Americans. To the contrary, researchers rely too much on the assumption of unspoken alignment, and—what’s worse—when questions arise, are quick to marginalize and malign those who don’t immediately agree. And even if we stipulate that we have mostly “won the hearts” of the public, it’s pretty clear that we haven’t won the minds of those who are making decisions about the future of the scientific enterprise in this country. And win votes we must if we are to assure that American preeminence in science continues. The challenge of winning hearts, minds, and votes is a collective task, and it is high time we embrace it.

As for votes, if we are to win them, we must discuss scientific opportunity in words the non-science trained public can relate to; we have to stir the aspirations we share with non-scientists, like new medical treatments and disease prevention. The question has been raised: How much science can we afford? Enough to meet scientific opportunity! This is the only metric that makes scientific as well as common sense, far more sense than the “regular inflationary increases” that are sometimes proposed. Ensuring that funding for science keeps pace with scientific opportunity is the goal we must champion if we expect to deliver the fundamental understandings that will lead to therapeutic breakthroughs and cures. And make no mistake, treatments and cures matter to the taxpayers.

Of course, “operationalizing” scientific opportunity is a challenge. But there is a precedent for it. Harold Varmus, Mike Bishop, and Marc Kirschner made the case in 1993 in Science that the National Institutes of Health’s budget should be doubled. Their paper emboldened advocates and helped champions in Congress accomplish that doubling. We can do this again, and I think we must.

Meanwhile, there is another job to do to help turn the tide for science.

Everyone must start today to put a human face—your face—on science. Start today to convey your commitment to serving the public’s interest. To every non-scientist you know—from family members and friends, to people you meet for the first time—say: “I work for you.” And then listen, learn, and respond to the questions they ask. Some who have used this approach report that members of the non-science trained public welcome suggestions of how they can help science succeed. It wouldn’t be the first time that saying “I work for you” to a stranger, not only makes you a new friend but creates a new friend of science. I hear those stories every day. There are more stories to tell—yours—and opportunities to share them abound. Let’s start winning hearts and minds today. As President Lincoln knew, the votes will follow.

Mary Woolley is president and CEO of Research!America.

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