Sunday, November 22, 2015

Reminder: Science does not happen in a vacuum

by Chris Yarosh

It is very easy to become wrapped up in day-to-day scientific life. There is always another experiment to do, or a paper to read, or a grant to submit. This result leads to that hypothesis, and that hypothesis needs to be tested, revised, re-tested, etc. Scientists literally study the inner workings of life, matter and the universe itself, yet science often seems set apart from other worldly concerns.

But it’s not.

The terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut and the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis have drawn the world’s attention, and rightfully so. These are genuine catastrophes, and it is difficult to imagine the suffering of those who must face the aftermath of these bouts of shocking violence.

At the same time, 80 world leaders are preparing to gather in freshly scarred Paris for another round of global climate talks. In a perfect world, these talks would focus only on the sound science and overwhelming consensus supporting action on climate change, and they would lead to an agreement that sets us on a path toward healing our shared home.

But this is not a perfect world.

In addition to the ongoing political struggle and general inertia surrounding climate change, we now must throw the fallout from the Paris attacks into the mix. Because of this, the event schedule will be limited to core discussions, which will deprive some people of their chance to demonstrate and make their voices heard on a large stage. This is a shame, but at least the meeting will go on. If the situation is as dire as many scientists and policy experts say it is, this meeting may be our last chance to align the world’s priorities and roll back the damage being caused to our planet. It was never going to be easy, and the fearful specter of terrorism—and the attention and resources devoted to the fight against it— does nothing to improve the situation.

This is a direct example of world events driving science and science policy, but possible indirect effects abound as well. It is not outside the realm of possibility that political disagreement over refugee relocation may lead to budget fights or government shutdown, both of which could seriously derail research in the U.S. With Election 2016 rapidly approaching, it is also possible that events abroad can drive voter preferences at home, with unforeseen impacts on how research is funded, conducted, and disseminated.

What does this mean for science and science policy?

For one, events like this remind us once again that scientists must stay informed and be ready to adapt as sentiments and attention shift in real time. Climate change and terrorism may not have seemed linked until now (though there is good reason to think that this connection runs deep), but the dramatic juxtaposition of both in Paris changes that. Scientists can offer our voices to the discussion, but it is vital that we keep abreast of the shifting political landscapes that influence the conduct and application of science. Keeping this birds-eye view is critical, because while these terrorist attacks certainly demand attention and action, they do nothing to change the urgent need for action on the climate, on health, and on a whole host of issues that require scientific expertise.

While staying current and engaging in policymaking is always a good thing for science (feel free to contact your representatives at any time), situations like the Syrian refugee crisis offer a more unique chance to lend a hand. Science is one of humanity’s greatest shared endeavors, an approach to understanding the world that capitalizes on the innate curiosity that all people share. This shared interest has always extended to displaced peoples, with the resulting collaborations providing a silver lining to the negative events that precipitated their migrations. Where feasible, it would be wise for universities across the globe to welcome Syrians with scientific backgrounds; doing so would provide continuity and support for the displaced while preventing a loss of human capital. Efforts to this effect are currently underway in Europe, though it is unclear how long these programs can survive the tension surrounding that continent.

For good and ill, world events have always shaped science. The tragedies in France, Syria, and elsewhere have incurred great human costs, and they will serve as a test of our shared humanity. As practitioners of one of our great shared enterprises, scientists have a uniquely privileged place in society, and we should use our station to help people everywhere in any way possible.

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