Who cares about the science?

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Text by Lin Lerpold, Associate Professor SSE & Executive Director Misum

During the summer I gave a lecture on how Swedish companies work with sustainability. I was in the United States presenting to a group of relatively educated and international business people, many of them having a Swedish background. For the first time I met with climate change deniers and it was somewhat of a shock for me. Though my lecture took for granted what an overwhelming majority of natural scientists agree on regarding human impacted climate change, I was unprepared for having to argue that climate change was indeed a surety. Of course there must be climate deniers also in Sweden but few would articulate their denial in a country where political correctness and conflict aversion is culturally high. My reaction was to fire back that according to the science it was beyond doubt that human behavior was indeed having a negative impact on our planet. The immediate response, “Who cares about the science?”

On April 22, more than one million people in more than 600 cities around the world united in an unprecedented coalition of organizations and individuals. People marched around the world to stand up for science and to defend the role of science in policy and society. Currently, a draft special report on climate change is now under review by the White House. The report was written by scientists inside and outside government, with input from the public and the National Academy of Sciences and concludes that Americans are most definitely feeling the effects of climate change right now. The report is designed to be an authoritative assessment of the science of climate change. According to the New York Times, some scientists fear that Mr. Trump will seek to bury it or alter its contents before it is formally released during the fall. The NYT headline reads, “Climate Report could force Trump to choose between science and his base”.

As scientists, with science as a belief system, we need to in the current zeitgeist of “alternative facts” ask ourselves why we now have to “Stand up for Science”. We need to go to where science is conducted and disseminated; to our universities and to academia, and consider whether we as institutions and scientists have in any way contributed to the loss of public trust in science, risking a new dark age with devastating consequences to humanity. Might it be possible that our contemporary academic structural incentives, with the sole de facto focus on scientific publications for promotion, has contributed to the demise of scientific influence and impact on society at large?

Though we pay lip service to the traditional three-legged stool mission of universities (research, education and service), we have overwhelmingly become subject to what Edwards & Roy (2017) describe as the “growing perverse incentives in Academia” where only the leg of research is valued in the scientific community which promotes on the number – often quantity over quality – of publications in scientific journals. The scientific journals and their articles themselves are usually neither accessible nor understandable to the general public.

Many research-based universities’ mission is to provide science based education, be it to their own students, practitioners and policymakers, or to society at large. To fulfill that mission, universities need scientists conducting rigorous research, but also scientists able to act as translators of knowledge to their students and the general public. Moreover to justify the resources from public and private funding for research, scientists need not only be scientific knowledge producers and pedagogical transmitters of that knowledge, they also need to help ensure that their research informs and benefits society at large. Scientists must go beyond discourse through, oftentimes, impenetrable articles and be incentivized to also reach those outside the scientific community. Why else should resources be spent on research if not to better serve the development of our society?

This is often called the third leg (academic service), and involves contributing to science-based knowledge and expertise to policymakers, to practitioners, participating in expert evaluations, not least of all disseminating knowledge to the general public through mass media channels, thus having a potential impact more broadly to the general public. This leg of academia, necessarily legitimately connected and based on the scientific research leg, has the greatest potential to engage and make people outside the scientific community better understand and trust science again.

Yet though the three legs of education, outreach and service are most times included in formal tenure promotion requirements in leading universities, only lip service is paid to being a good teacher or knowledge disseminator outside the scientific community. Indeed, teaching is oftentimes considered a necessary evil and referred to as a “burden” or “load” and a scientist in the public eye is many times considered suspect or accused of being too “political” by other scientists when they engage in societal discourse. Instead, only publications in narrowly defined and established scientific journals are valued and considered legitimate in most tenure advancement evaluations.

Academics are humans and readily respond to incentives. The natural wish to achieve tenure and promotion along with the current overwhelming focus on scientific publications to do so, may possibly be linked to the general public’s disregard and even distrust of science. As scientists we do care about the science. We take it for granted as our belief system. How can we ensure that science matters also for non-scientists? How do we, for instance, make my lecture to the international business participants and politicians like Trump care about the science? Perhaps it is through a more balanced three-legged academic incentive structure promoting the legs of education and academic service to society as important as the leg of research.

Written by: Lin Lerpold, Associate Professor SSE & Executive Director Misum

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