Opinion guest column

Our duty as scientists

Public perception is important, and MIT students can’t stand idly by

Science today has an image problem. Too often it is seen as an esoteric activity of academics, whose results have no influence on the daily lives of the American people. When the news of the neutrinos supposedly going faster of light was reported and the public saw the scientific community scramble to debunk this claim, I cannot help but wonder what an American who does not follow science thought of the coverage.

Surely, he would have thought that all the fuss was for nothing. Whether or not the neutrinos were in fact breaking the laws of relativity does not affect his life. He must have thought that the coverage was a waste of time and the scientists were wasting money. Attitudes like that are exactly why science needs a makeover, and we as MIT students are in a unique position to provide this fresh start. Science has improved the quality of life of millions of people, and we need to promote this service.

Science has a deep history of service to the community. When Francis Bacon first outlined his method for Baconian Inquiry in the early 1600s, known today as the scientific method, he stressed that science could help improve the standard of living for everyone. This was a radical idea; up until that point, science had been thought of as a pastime for rich aristocrats. Furthermore, the results of their experiments were often kept secret. No one considered that the science could be used as tool to benefit mankind. Bacon challenged this view, and his view helped define the modern scientific paradigm. Today, no one questions the fact that scientific research can benefit society, but we must remind the general public that this is why scientists exist: to makes discoveries which improve the quality of life for all.

One reason that governments are able to fund science is because the results of the research have radically increased the standard of living and benefited society as a whole. However, in 2012’s America, the predominating view of a scientist is not of someone devoting her- or himself to helping mankind. More likely, the dominating belief is that scientists are people who take government money and do research that has no practical benefits whatsoever. Our job as MIT students is to challenge and change this belief. As any researcher at Alcator C-Mod can attest to, the stakes have never been higher.

I cannot walk through campus without being reminded of all the practical benefits of the research that our faculty conducts. Posters everywhere highlight the importance of research in areas ranging from energy storage, to biomedical devices, to robotics. The spotlight on the MIT homepage offers a daily reminder of the continuous stream of innovative ideas that MIT researchers produce and how these ideas will benefit society. Unfortunately, stories like these rarely reach the general public.

We as MIT students know first-hand about the value of science; we see it every day. We also represent the face of science in America — I am continually amazed by the amount of articles on science and technology in the New York Times which quote MIT affiliates. We are the ambassadors of science and as such, we must do a better job promoting it. With this power comes the responsibility to show the general public how science benefits society. People have short memories; most probably they do not remember how almost all game-changing technologies from the computer to the Internet emerged from government-sponsored research done by scientists in colleges and universities.

We must remind the public of this fact; science has a proven track record. But moreover, we must inspire them with ideas about what the future might hold. Given what science has produced, we should be offering the public a window into the generation of scientific discoveries.

Organizations like the TED conferences have started to take up this duty, but we at MIT must do more to be a part of the solution. By stressing the idea that science can improve the standard of living and benefit everyone, we scientists and engineers can help change the public opinion on science and scientists. If more people realize just what a difference scientists and engineers make, then we may inspire more people to join us as we try to use science to save the world.

Sam Shames is a junior in Course 3.

1 Comment
Di Sheng Lee over 10 years ago

So so true. This is not only the perception in America, but the world. Nevertheless, TV channels like the Discovery Channel, Discovery Science, Nat Geo, etc. have been doing a pretty good job in raising awareness among the world audience of what science is really is, and the potentials that it promises to us.