Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Democratization of Science

And why it's really, really important.

Ask yourself why we have such widespread scientific illiteracy in what is supposed to be the best educated country on earth, and why at least half of the population rejects scientific inquiry and the scientific understanding of the world entirely. The reason is because science is entirely remote from most people. It’s just an alternative priesthood. I’ve got my religion, you’ve got yours. If I’m a Baptist, and you’re a Hindu or a Moslem, we believe different things and you’re just wrong. I don’t know anything about the Upanishads or the Koran, and I can’t read them anyway because they’re in a very strange foreign language.

Science is no different in that respect, but it’s even worse. I’m allowed to convert to Islam, and they’ll gladly let me into the mosque and teach me the doctrines, but I’m not allowed to walk into the university in the morning and declare that I want to become a scientist. First they will give me all sorts of tests of my aptitude and past intellectual accomplishments, and even if I pass those, I’ll have to spend a dozen years and come up with a hundred thousand dollars before they’ll let me be one of them.

In other words, scientists are an exclusive, arrogant elite. They don’t even talk to me, they only talk to each other. A subscription to a scientific journal costs hundreds of dollars a year, and the university won’t even let me into the library. Even if I could get a hold of one of those journals, I wouldn’t be able to read it because it isn’t written in English. The questions they study don’t mean anything to me, the answers don’t make any sense, and if I try to question them, they just call me an ignorant idiot. So why should I believe them, especially if it’s more pleasant, or more profitable, or more popular with my friends and neighbors, to believe something else?

Meanwhile, as fast as scientific discovery and new technologies are changing the world, I’m not getting any better off. People are struggling as hard as ever, social inequality is growing throughout the world, and the familiar communities and environments that nurture people physically, emotionally, and spiritually are continually eroded and often just destroyed.

So this, to me, is a fairly big deal, and it encompasses a lot of issues. For example, I’m a big booster of open access publishing, but to me, that has to go further than putting the journals on the web where anybody can read them. It also means that the research reports need to be accompanied by parallel essays in accessible language, and that the journals need to publish periodic reviews that give an overview of the current state of the field so that readers have context for individual findings. I don’t necessarily think a lot of lay people would take advantage of these resources, but it would be a tremendous boost to science in the poor countries, where journals are unaffordable and educational opportunities limited. It would also help to equalize the opportunity for bright young people to educate themselves. (My grandparents gave me a subscription to Scientific American when I was ten years old. It changed my life.)

It means there needs to be a more open and democratic process for setting government funding priorities. And no, I’m not talking about Congress earmarking research funding. (God forbid.) Specific research proposals should certainly be reviewed by people with appropriate technical expertise and funding awarded on the merits by non-political judges. But there are plenty of ways to make the process more open, and with meaningful opportunities for broad participation by advocacy organizations and the general public. I won’t go into details here, but perhaps at another time.

And no we come to the actual conduct of research. Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) is a concept – a movement really – that is grounded mostly in environmental and other public health research that focuses on specific geographic areas or clearly definable groups of people. The Large Hadron Collider or Mars lander missions probably cannot be conducted according to CBPR principles, although they could devote even more resources than they do to public programming and dialogue. The job description of principal investigators for such Big Science projects should be 50% public engagement, in my view.

But the potential role for broad public involvement, not only setting overall priorities, and being informed about results, but in directly shaping specific aims of individual research projects, study design, and the analysis of results is much stronger when the research is actually about them. First and foremost, people are likely to be more motivated to participate. Second, what questions matter the most depends a lot on what matters to them, as does the most meaningful and useful interpretation of results. Third, the use to which new knowledge is put, the possible impacts on public policy or practices, depends on what happens after the findings are published, and that hinges on politics.

So it sounds like a good idea for academic investigators to partner with community groups and interested citizens under many circumstances. But there are many problems and pitfalls in doing so, which I will discuss anon.


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It can't work in reality, that is exactly what I suppose.

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