Thanks to federal funding, the United States has been a world power in science research since World War II.
Unfortunately, quack science is giving research a bad name – people distrust science when conflicting reports emerge such as those stating that everything we eat both cures and causes cancer.
Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health, which funds two-thirds of public research, received its first budget increase after a decade of stagnation. This may seem like a sigh of relief given that President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would have significantly slashed federal research funds. In actuality, though, the 2017 NIH budget is slimmer than its 2006 budget when adjusted for inflation, exemplifying how government officials still don’t see the importance of basic science research.
For example, last year, Jeff Flake, a U.S. Senator from Arizona, accused the National Science Foundation of wasting $1.1 million on a study he believed to be about why cheerleaders sometimes seem to be more attractive in groups than as individuals. In reality, the study modeled how to make self-driving cars safer through detecting human error, and the report’s authors only mention cheerleaders once to make a comparison about how humans perceive car crashes. This is one of 20 studies Flake incorrectly criticized in a recent publication.
But the attitude that research should have immediate applications or not be done at all is detrimental. Flake denounces basic research, or research resulting in general knowledge, and demands for more applied research, or research solving a specific problem. Basic research, however, is imperative for conducting applied research, and is the backbone of many beloved discoveries. Research on black holes, for example, eventually led to the development of the internet.
Evidently, there is a jarring disconnect between scientific research and the policies that fund it. Politicians like Flake don’t understand the need for basic science research and researchers often don’t take the time to communicate the significance of their research.
Emphasizing increased communication between researchers and members of the public can bridge this gap. Researchers should use social media to share their findings in layman’s terms to the general public, and universities should create pipelines for open communication between policymakers and scientists, such as through offering science communication training to its faculty. Doing so could generate more support and funding for science research, and more importantly, improved media coverage of researchers’ work helps people make more informed choices about their lives.
A 2015 Pew Research Center survey highlights the disconnect between science and policy: While 70 percent of Americans support federally funded research, many also distrust science, with over half skeptical of topics like climate change. Similarly, scientists say much of the public – politicians included – don’t have a general understanding of the scientific process.
One reason for this is that media outlets tend to ignore research flaws such as small sample sizes, and report on contradictory findings on basic facts such as the safety of vaccines and the validity of climate change. For example, Time Magazine published a now-heavily edited article originally titled “Smelling Farts Can Prevent Cancer.” The original scientific publication mentioned neither farts nor cancer, simply stating certain sulfide compounds “are useful pharmalogical tools to study the mitochondrial physiology of (hydrogen sulfide) in health and disease.”
To avoid information being lost in translation, researchers should not just share their research in journals and conferences but also circulate their findings on social media to clear up misconceptions and create a relationship with the public.
As of 2016, 62 percent of Americans get their news from social media, but only one-fifth of the scientists on the Scholarometer’s top 100 authors ranking had an identifiable Twitter. Acclaimed scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins already have a strong presence on the platform and frequently show the public how research is beneficial and exciting.
In an interview with Science magazine, Jonathan Eisen, a UC Davis researcher who boasts 42,000 citations, said consistently tweeting about research in his lab helped attract graduate students to his lab and gained him two grants for science communication. Other scientists could improve their chances of earning research funding by also maintaining social media presences, as doing so exemplifies commitment to public outreach. Obviously, in-depth scientific discussions cannot be covered in 140 characters, but Twitter and other social media platforms can expose relevant information to audiences who aren’t spending their time poring over scientific journals.
Additionally, universities can offer policy-focused courses for science, technology, engineering and math students. Schools such as Stanford University piloted classes for students to work on issues ranging from mental health to food and nutrition, gain science communication training and later meet with policymakers in Washington, D.C. to present their concerns and receive feedback. Through this, scientists and policymakers were able to learn about what the other does, their limitations and goals. The American Association for the Advancement of Science found inviting federal representatives to labs or campus is also effective at communicating science.
Certainly, it’s easy for scientists to forego communicating science to policymakers and shift their focus toward private funding. However, the private sector does not share the same desire for research: Only 20 percent of its budget is focused on basic and applied research and 80 percent on development, whereas publicly funded ventures see the opposite trend. It’s clear scientists need to improve communication to ensure the public understands the magnitude of basic research and promote increases in public funding for it.
Despite the imminent threat of federally funded research cuts, we must continue to feed the innate curiosity of human nature. Effective communication of science has the power to change public opinion and influence policymaking. And engaging in it could open up the doors for budding researchers and new discoveries that will truly make America great again.