Our species is accomplishing something breathtaking: we are, collectively and slowly, beginning to understand the universe. But very few of us are allowed to access that incredible process, even though almost all of us are required to pay for it.
Consider the relationship most people in developed countries have with science. After a decade of sitting through a science education that didn’t serve them, most people’s participation in research gets whittled down to the taxes they’re forced to pay to a small group of individuals who have been designated as professional scientists. Those scientists then use those tax dollars to publish research that tax-payers do not see, in jargon tax-payers are not familiar with, in journals tax-payers cannot pay for – but are paying for, by funding the entire process. What’s more, tax-payers have very little say in what gets researched using their tax money, and a sweep of laws are implemented based on the advice of scientists without significant input from tax-payers.
From the scientists’ perspective, this system makes sense, since it guarantees that science-based decisions are made by those who understand the relevant research. As an analogy, it’s like letting car engine manufacturers be the ones to vet car engines and each other, rather than letting politicians do the job. And, as most researchers would insist, there are mechanisms in place to try to ensure that science-related decisions reflect the needs and preferences of the tax-paying public. For example, mirroring American’s preference for clinical research over basic (i.e. non-applied) research, the U.S. federal government gives far more money to the National Institutes of Health, which oversees clinical science, than it does to the National Science Foundation, which funds more fundamental, non-applied science. And although scientists within the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are the ones calling the shots on how their money gets allocated to labs around the country (rather than letting politicians call the shots), those scientists have an unofficial mandate to make those funding decisions reflect the needs and preferences of the American public.
Despite these caveats, this system is still unfair because tax-payers are, in the final analysis, excluded from almost every facet of this process. In an equitable system, the nuclear physicists would of course be the ones doing the nuclear physics research, but tax-payers would also have the option to be involved in the scientific process if they wanted to be – from a right to access research they paid for, to influencing decisions about what gets researched using their money, to influencing what policies are implemented based on that research. And while it’s true that federal science agencies do try to take diverse perspectives into account when they decide what to fund, and while governments do try to consider public opinion when making science-related decisions, there’s a limit to how equitable such a system can be when diverse tax-payers aren’t actually allowed to access any part of this process. (This point isn’t new – for a more thorough and balanced analysis of this issue, I highly recommend Philip Kitcher’s Science, Truth, and Democracy and Science in a Democratic Society.)
But including non-scientists in the scientific process is important for more than just equity – greater inclusion in science is necessary for science itself.
And that’s both because diverse perspectives directly benefit science, and also because science’s exclusivity has only ever been tolerated periodically. Because they aren’t included in the scientific process, many people’s default view of science is that it is elitist. And because of this resentment toward science, broad funding for research has ever only been an historical exception, not a norm – and that exception has only ever been made in the times when governments (not people) have periodically found science useful.
Americans, for example, have always resented scientific elitism, and this has meant that the fortunes of academic science have been dictated by the government’s oscillating sense of scientists’ utility. The history of this is described meticulously in Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life, winner of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. One of the earliest historical examples Hofstadter points to is the 1824 presidential race between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, which was pitched, at the time, as a choice between aristocracy and intellect on the one hand, and democracy and native wisdom on the other. And this dichotomy had real consequences for American science: Adams supported federal funding for science, Jackson did not. What’s more, Adams’ plea to fund academic science using federal money was mocked for its perceived elitism. And with Jackson’s landslide victory, America continued lagging behind European science for years. As science historian Roy Macleod writes, Jacksonian democracy “had little use for elite science, and less interest in its financial support.”
But the pendulum swung in American scientists’ favor during the Progressive Era, during which the government (not people) came to see intellectuals as useful in guiding reforms. For example, it was during this time that the “Wisconsin Idea” was born, in which universities were tasked with conducting social science research in the service of the state, so as to help guide regulation of the new, complex, industrial world. As the writer Brander Matthews observed at the time (1909), “The prejudice against the College Professors, like that against the men of letters, is rapidly dying down … due to a growing understanding of the real value of the expert and the theorist.”
But the pendulum swung once more after WWI, when the American public turned against scientists for their perceived ties to the war and government, and the government no longer had much need for researchers. The status of science worsened further during the Great Depression, which, as historian Jacob Darwin Hamblin writes in Science in the Early Twentieth Century, saw “growing concern about technocracy, or rule by a scientific and technological elite,” which led to “outright hostility to scientists.” The result was that “science for its own sake, an ideal of the 1920s, seemed to be an elitist dream.”
Yet, the reception of scientists warmed again during the New Deal and WWII, when the U.S. government again found use for intellectuals: brain trusts were established to help guide the policies of the New Deal, and the government relied heavily on the expertise of university scientists for the war effort. It’s during this time, at the close of WWII, when American science entered its current status quo, with more or less continued federal funding and scientific autonomy despite see-sawing public attitudes toward science. This transition was largely facilitated by a 1945 government report titled Science-The Endless Frontier, which extolled scientists’ perceived utility during wartime in order to secure continued funding and autonomy during peacetime – so that scientists could be all the more useful to the government when called upon in future times of need. This turned American scientists into what sociologist Chandra Mukerji has called a “reserve labor force” for the government, “in the sense that they [scientists] are supported by governments and industries so their honed skills will be available when they are needed.”
But American scientists’ status as a “reserve labor force” has, on-and-off since the close of WWII, been called into question. Arguably, that’s where we stand today, with federal research funding flattening for the first time since WWII. What’s more, there’s a downward turn in Americans’ view of science and scientists, with science coverage disappearing from major media, anti-science conspiracy theories on the rise, and Americans seeing scientists as cold and untrustworthy.
But this see-sawing status of science – and its relationship to perceptions of scientific elitism – is not unique to the United States, or even to Western cultures. More drastic versions of this trend can be found in many countries and historical periods, and always with tangible consequences for the practice of science itself. The most notable recent examples are the Soviet Union (as brilliantly summarized in Ings’ Stalin and the Scientists) and Communist China (as described in Wei and Brock’s Mr. Science and Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution). I’ll describe the Chinese case here, only because of the current meteoric rise of Chinese science, which some speculate could soon surpass American science in research output.
Like scientists and intellectuals in the U.S., Chinese academics have also been periodically looked down on as elitist by people and Party alike, and then periodically called upon by the government to serve the useful role of an intelligentsia in a modernizing state. This led, as elsewhere, to wild fluctuations in scientists’ societal roles and fortunes: Chinese scientists enjoyed independence and prestige briefly, between 1962 and 1965, after the Great Leap Forward and before the Cultural Revolution. But the Cultural Revolution spelled disaster for Chinese scientists, who were punished for their supposed elitism: 106 members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences were persecuted to death based on their “reactionary” behavior before the Communist takeover, scientists and doctors were “cured” of their elitism by doing forced agricultural labor in the countryside, significant research was placed in the hands of farmers with no scientific training, scientific journals were closed, and basic (non-applied) disciplines – in particular those deemed too difficult or theoretical for the layman to understand – were forcibly purged in favor of Party-approved applied research. Though some research programs that were of military interest continued, as did research that could usefully employ the “masses” (such as large-scale seismology and weather monitoring), the Cultural Revolution was, in all, a disaster for Chinese science.
But, as has happened elsewhere so many times, scientists’ fortunes in China again swung in a positive direction once the government remembered the utility of letting highly-trained researchers do broad, basic science. In 1975, two years after returning to power, Deng Xiaoping sent three of his lieutenants to the Chinese Academy of Sciences to investigate the state of science in China. Their subsequent “Outline Report on the Work of the Chinese Academy of Sciences” served as the blueprint for the rehabilitation of Chinese science, and emphasized the importance of basic research and allowing scientists to run their own affairs – echoing the same arguments made in the American government report Science-The Endless Frontier, which informs how science is conducted in the U.S. today. And, in China, as in the United States, the point of letting scientists run their own affairs was that doing so was seen as useful to the government: the Party offered scientists money, prestige, government positions, and the ear of politicians only because they realized that they could benefit from scientists’ expertise, so long as scientists were left alone to develop those expertise. In other words, Chinese scientists, like American scientists, became a reserve labor force.
The cursory history I’ve outlined above, which made little to no mention of similarly oscillating tides of scientific fortune in France and Russia, nor of more historically remote but qualitatively similar oscillations in, for example, the Hellenic world or the Medieval Muslim world, makes it clear that the status of science has always varied. And that variance has usually been tied to scientific exclusivity – which leads, inevitably, to perceptions of science as elitist. American scientists have more or less prospered since WWII despite see-sawing attitudes toward scientists, largely because of the government’s continued recognition of scientists’ usefulness as a “reserve labor force.” But in light of the broader historical backdrop I’ve described, as well as the changing relationship between scientists and the American government we’re seeing today, I think it’s clear that this status is precarious. For both reasons of fairness and to secure the continued progress of science, I think we need to fix scientific exclusivity, and allow everyone to exercise their right to science.
There are better and worse ways of doing this. It’s important to remember that this is precisely what the Chinese Communists were trying to accomplish before they effectively shut down science in China. As Ethan Signer and Arthur W. Galston wrote for a 1972 issue of Science magazine, the Chinese were attempting to “to do away with institutional and social customs that used to keep intellectuals and professionals as elite classes culturally distinct from ordinary people.” But their attempt was, as we know now, an unmitigated disaster.
Fortunately, there are better ways of letting people exercise their right to science, which don’t involve sending scientists to the countryside to do forced agricultural labor.
At the top of that list is open-access publishing, which allows anyone with an Internet connection to access scientific research. While many journals are going open-access, we need far more journals to make the switch. We also need more scientists to start submitting their work to open-access platforms. It’s unfair that people can’t access research that their own tax dollars paid for. This is why, though legally questionable, I support websites like Sci-Hub, which break past journals’ paywalls and make research available to everyone.
We also need science education to cater to more than just future scientists. In his Science in a Democratic Society, philosopher Philip Kitcher imagines an education system that is “purposeful and rewarding for the many who come to believe that their lives should go in a different direction [other than science] … Instead of compelling them to keep tackling problems they find irrelevant or baffling or both; instead of taxing their memories with terminology they will quickly forget; instead of forcing them, year after year, through a weekly regime of experiments; we might encourage them to become happy consumers of scientific information.”
Moreover, we need formal mechanisms for including scientifically-informed tax-payers, with diverse perspectives, in science-related decision-making. Here, Philip Kitcher again makes a useful suggestion, by pointing to Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy as a possible model for including more people in science-related deliberation. The model, to quote from the Center’s website, would work like this: “A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the deliberative events are often broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form and/or through social media and other mediums. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues.” This model could easily be extended to science-related policies and decision-making.
Another way to include more people in the scientific process (again suggested by Kitcher) is to let public representatives “behind the scenes” of science. This is a role which, I think, could be fruitfully played by online influencers – and some of them are already doing exactly that. For example, in his Emmy-nominated show Mind Field (which I am grateful to have been able to consult for), YouTube celebrity Michael Stevens let viewers behind the scenes of every part of the scientific process, from ethical review board meetings to the recording and analysis of data, to successful experiments, to failed experiments. And tens of millions of people watched. We need more content like this, and scientists should do what they can to help in the creation of that content (for e.g. by letting or inviting influencers into their labs).
We also need increased two-way communication between scientists and non-scientists. Fortunately, this can also be done using social media. Platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter allow scientists to directly engage with diverse non-scientists – to not only directly share their research with non-scientists, but to also hear what non-scientists would like to see researched, what their ethical concerns are, and to what extent they feel that their preferences are taken into account in the scientific process. Social media can also help foster trust between scientists and non-scientists. As my colleagues and I showed in a recent study (published in an open-access, online journal), simply seeing photos of smiling scientists on social media can significantly boost people’s perceptions of scientists as warm and trustworthy. That’s why I find it so encouraging that many scientists have already taken to social media to post “selfies” from their labs, fields, and chalkboards as a way to humanize research, and that accounts like @thescicommunity, @scientistselfies, @women.doing.science, @500womensci, and @500queerscientists are making it easy to find those scientists online.
Finally, part of that two-way communication should address the importance of basic, theoretical research. Non-applied science has always been particularly resented for its perceived elitism, with theoretical researchers persecuted with special ferocity during the French Revolution, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the Soviet Union (prominent theorists were in fact killed in all three cases). But this trend isn’t isolated to violent regimes or revolutions: as already mentioned, Americans today are far more supportive of applied research than they are of theoretical research, which is reflected in how federal research funding is currently allocated in the U.S. While the motivation behind this preference for applied research is understandable, it reflects a miscommunication about the importance of theory and basic science. We need to relay the fact that theory allows us to make large generalizations to fundamental laws (in the cases where we can find them), which is practically useful, because these generalizations allow us to make more precise and far-reaching predictions and interventions.
But, even in the cases in which basic science does not lead to practically useful generalizations, it can, I think, be appreciated for its sheer poetry. Just like professional scientists, folks who aren’t paid to do research for a living are also interested in the beauty of science – in the honest and systematic attempt to understand this bizarre and wonderful universe and how we woke up in it. And if you don’t believe me, I think it’s worth ending this piece with the story of when physicist Robert R. Wilson tried to get funding for an American particle accelerator:
When Robert R. Wilson was called upon by Congress in 1969 to convince the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy to fund a particle accelerator, the American public was in the grips of one of its distrustful phases in their see-sawing attitude toward science – with a recession, massive spending on the Apollo program, environmental degradation, and an arms race being waged in nuclear physics labs. Rather than use the usual Cold War tactic of appealing to the potential military utility of the proposed research, Wilson appealed to the importance of basic science as an intrinsic cultural good. The following is part of his exchange with Senator John Pastore, who asked why Congress should allocate $250 million to a particle accelerator:
Pastore: “Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?”
Wilson: “Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, good poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country – except to make it worth defending.”
The funding was approved.
Featured image credit: Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Físicas, Gabi Tores