Tag Archives: Harold Varmus
Op-ed by Research!America President and CEO Mary Woolley published in The Scientist.
On winning hearts, minds, and votes for science
In 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. Continue reading →