Society’s Janus View of Researchers

Janus is the guy that looked both ways simultaneously and had two different perspectives on what he saw. It seems that society has the same view of science and research. A recent Eurobarometer survey revealed that almost half the respondents thought that scientists “have the power to make them dangerous”. Probably 50% thought that they are “away with the fairies” and involved in irrelevant self-indulgencies. Probably more than 50% of them think that the solutions to the needs of society require a strong and relevant input from scientists. And probably 50% would say that the researchers are essential for future economies.

Some of those questions were not polled, but more than half of the respondents did say that they did not trust scientists because they are too dependant on funding that is linked to industry, and yet, more than half  also say that scientists are best qualified to explain scientific and technological developments. Now that is quite a mix of views and it is even possible that there are more than two cohorts in society and that Janus is not man enough to represent their kaleidoscopic perspectives! In Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), we had a poll a few years ago in which 75% of people polled from the general public said that funding for research was essential for the future of Ireland – but that was still in the times when the sun shone.

Obviously, these different constituents are sending mixed messages – but they cannot be ignored. From the biblical start of time, knowledge (the tree of knowledge tempted Adam) has been viewed as “dangerous”. Scientists have made things that were bad (the Nuclear bomb) but in fact it was the push from the political system at the time that demanded and ensured that this happened. And it is also true that those at the frontiers of knowledge (where good scientists reside) see things before general society can absorb them and this is, at first, scary. That is, unless, that is, it is some new fangled way to communicate and then the danger question does not arise in society.

Some scientists are working on things that are not obviously grounded in the ‘real world’. But then, occasionally, something happens and the irrelevant becomes central to daily life. Microwave ovens were not invented by those companies that were in the kitchen appliance business – they came from ‘irrelevant’ work on wave functions.  In SFI, we attracted Chris Dainty to NUI Galway to work on the properties of Light. Pretty irrelevant? Today, he and his team are collaborating with 9 companies, a further 55+ companies are interacting with the Applied Optics Group, and at least 1 spin-off is in the pipeline! But yes, there are some who really work on knowledge-generation, and the microwave-like consequence has not been seen and perhaps never will. Maybe we should recall that a distinguishing feature of humans is the fact that we can think, imagine, design experiments and add to the quotient of knowledge about ourselves and the world we live in.

Almost all planners of research believe passionately that science will be the major source of solutions for the needs of society. Here and elsewhere, I use “science” in the European and not Anglo-Saxon sense, as that embraces the major contributions that can come from the social sciences and humanities. These are important, for example to understand how to wean society off cigarettes – scientists have proven their toxicity decades ago. In the planning of the EU research programmes, a new emphasis is being placed on the need to invest in finding solutions to Society’s needs. Examples range for Alzheimer’s disease to sustainable energy and all points between. When you think about it, there is really no alternative to finding a solution or way of even delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s other than through research. The same is true for all other problems.

As for the industries of the future, it is self-evident that we cannot simply think that we know all we need and that no more novel products are needed as the current range of therapeutic drugs is sufficient. So more research (both basic and applied) is needed and the same applies to making a smaller phone, a quicker way of finding on the Web what you really want, or any of the other things that are manufactured and used today. The country that keeps moving on the trail of all such products – an endless list – is the one that will have a healthy economy. Those that think innovation can be created without skilled people trained by working on the hardest topics will soon squeeze the sponge of readily-available knowledge dry. We know in Ireland that short-termism is bad road to travel and that it ends in a cul de sac from which exit is painful – so we should read the signposts carefully, and worldwide they send the same message about the way to a society with a high standard of living. 

And yet, there remains a core distrust by society, (as revealed again by the Eurobarometer study) of the industrial world. Those that fund research, like SFI,  push scientists to mesh with it whenever possible and yet, in doing so, a part of society says the researchers are contaminated and that this  inevitably leads to trickery, omission and deception. I believe in developing the mutually-beneficial collaborations and I do not believe that the majority of scientists poison their wells of integrity by these contacts. Some in society push this line for ideological reasons, but it is not rational, then, to complain if research is not performed -unless all funding for research comes from the Government. I have not heard an outcry for that to happen and I anticipate there would be one if it did. 

So the overall message is that excesses and rare bad cases create some images and beliefs that do not fit with the massive generality of the role of scientists in society. Films, books and the TV also re-enforce the image of bad/mad scientists (unless they are in a pathologist’s lab). The challenge for society is to get a balanced picture such that the good that is needed happens and the road to it gets the support it deserves. All those who are close to the reality of research have a special responsibility to communicate these developments and how science really works to balance the output of messages. And blogs are not the worst way to do that, as they do not end up in the bin of an editor who is looking for something sensational that will sell a paper.

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One thought on “Society’s Janus View of Researchers

  1. Peter Metcalf

    Dear Frank,

    I’ve been searching for your email address and came across the blog – I’m totally impressed with your openness and courage in writing!

    I’m guessing that frank.gannon@sfi.ie may work – Please let me know if I got it wrong.

    All the Best

    Peter Metcalf

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