Bruce Hamilton: Why science matters to all

Michael Gladden, a fourth grade student at Santa Clarita Christian School, shares information about his Roller Coast Drop of Doom project during the school's first STEM Expo Friday. Christina Cox/The Signal

Growing up in the Santa Clarita Valley, I always felt that the world was wide and mine to explore. Whether hiking in Placerita Canyon, following the Santa Clara River bed, or just marveling at how surface tension can hold water drops in place on the few days it rained, there was always something to see, to observe, to figure out.

Trying to figure things out is, in part, how I became a scientist. With the role of science in our society being debated in some quarters, I want to share a few things about science that should be more widely known.

Science is fun. Some people tell me they don’t like science because of a class that made them memorize lists of boring facts. That isn’t science (nor, for that matter, good teaching).

Science is a process, a way of finding things out, not a collection of results. Science is how we obtain new knowledge – and re-check what we think we know already.

Scientists are more competitive than you might think. Few things are as exhilarating as understanding something new about the world before anybody else – or disproving something that was thought to be true.

This is part of how science self-corrects. If the evidence is weak or the conclusion is wrong, another scientist will delight in correcting it.

Science is full of surprises. While basic science supports development of many useful things, and scientific methods are used to make or improve products, science-for-the-sake-of-finding-things-out turns out to be really important for progress.

We don’t know where the next real innovation will come from. By pushing the limits of our knowledge, we create the widest possible base for new invention.

Somewhat paradoxically, undirected discovery (basic research) is often the shortest path to goals that have resisted direct attempts based on our prior understanding – precisely because we did not know what pieces of the puzzle we were missing until someone found them in a place no one had looked before.

Editing DNA in cells had been an extremely challenging goal for basic research and therapeutic development before a new tool made it relatively easy. This tool (called CRISPR/Cas9) was found by studying how bacteria fight off bacterial viruses – which led to an unexpected class of enzymes that edit DNA.

Science supports our quality of life. Science is not itself technology, but it is a necessary foundation of technology. Your smartphone, streaming video and health care were all driven by basic science discoveries whose commercial applications were not always obvious.

Basic research in bacterial genetics led to recombinant DNA technology – which in turn allows the production of things like synthetic insulin, life-saving for diabetics.

Development of vaccines for emerging viruses, remarkable new treatments for some cancers (such as Gleevec for certain leukemias), and the promise of personalized medicine are made possible by the basic research that allow scientists to grow viruses in the laboratory, understand how cells divide, and interpret vast amounts of data. And you are unlikely to know anyone who died of smallpox or polio.

Science is an economic engine. Because science provides the basis for new goods and services that people want, economies that invest in science tend to prosper. The impact is not always direct and can be hard to measure fully, but it is real and powerful.

Silicon Valley and two of the three largest biotech industry clusters in the U.S. are in California because of innovations that came out of California universities.

We don’t know where the next innovation will come from, but our investment in science has been essential to economic competitiveness in an increasingly technology-dependent world. The technological advantages we gain and the economic value they confer make our investment in science a national security imperative.

Science is non-partisan, but scientists can be politically engaged. Politicians should also engage with science. Science is how we understand the world; politics is how we decide what to do about it.

When policymakers say “I am not a scientist, but…” followed by a dismissal of scientific evidence, we should be wary. When someone asserts the value of a policy choice, we should expect to see and evaluate the logic and evidence.

Many scientists are becoming more engaged with public policy because they see partisanship pushing science – the way we discover and test how things work – out of many policy debates. Diminishing the role of science in an increasingly technological world is bad for our security, our economy, our health care, and our lives.

If we disagree in our perceptions of the way things are, science can inform us on the facts. If we disagree on how to respond to new conditions, science can and should inform our options.

Science is not about finding the evidence to support our beliefs. It is about modifying our opinions and actions in response to evidence.

Strength in science is essential to addressing many of our common challenges – and that matters.

The author is a scientist and graduate of Canyon High School, the University of California San Diego, and the California Institute of Technology. He is currently Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Associate Director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine at the University of California San Diego. Published under Creative Commons CC-BY license from the author.


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