Scientists must solve growing trust problem

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Scientists must solve growing trust problem

Postby Wilberforce » Sat Feb 14, 2015 1:52 pm

Scientists must solve growing trust problem

Mercury News Editorial

Scientists are facing a crisis of trust.

A Pew Research Center poll released Jan. 29 shows a huge gap between the views of scientists and the general public on a range of issues -- not just climate change but also genetically modified foods, vaccinations, the use of animals in research and the threat of overpopulation. Furthermore, as scientific theories evolve, today's instant mass communication of each step forward and back undermines belief in facts that are proven, like the ability of vaccines to all but eliminate a disease.

Lecturing people isn't the answer. Alan Leshner, the outgoing CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, made that clear Wednesday when he met with this newspaper's Editorial Board. Scientists instead need to engage the public in a forthright conversation about the importance of science to society, he said.

Thousands of scientists are gathered in San Jose this weekend for the AAAS annual meeting. We hope they're grappling with how to begin that public conversation. Silicon Valley's science-based economy should be an inspiration.

Federal funding for R&D in areas such as energy and medicine has dropped 10 percent in the past six years -- and these are areas people consider important. Overall, R&D as a percentage of total federal spending is at its lowest level since 1956.

America's changing attitudes toward science and diminishing funding for research are not entirely a cause-and-effect phenomenon. Americans believe in roads and bridges but don't want to pay to maintain them, either. And like declining infrastructure, the decline of scientific research and the consequences for Americans' lives and economic advancement are worrisome.

Increasingly, Americans believe that what's called science is actually political posturing. For example, only half of the adults surveyed by Pew said climate change is mostly due to human activity, while 87 percent of scientists believe it is; 37 percent of Americans think genetically modified foods are safe, compared to 88 percent of scientists; 68 percent of adults say childhood vaccines should be required, while 86 percent of scientists think so.

And 82 percent of scientists believe world population will be a major problem, while only 59 percent of Americans agree.

In a January editorial in Science magazine, Lesher wrote that only 52 percent of scientists say this "is a good time for science," down from 76 percent as recently as 2009. The disparity not only puts future funding for science in danger, Leshner said, but also carries the risk that America's best young minds will no longer want to pursue research as a career. That would be disastrous for Silicon Valley.

Community and political leaders have a role in restoring respect for the pursuit of scientific truth. But Lesher is right that scientists themselves need to be more engaged in fostering understanding of their independence, motivation and actual work.

source
http://www.mercurynews.com/opinion/ci_2 ... wing-trust
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