opinion

COLUMN: Science gives solutions slowly but surely



Everyone should know how science shapes society. We need to know how neuroscience helps us understand mental illness or how gravitational waves let us better understand relativity.

It’s very important we make sure scientific research can meet society’s needs. But good scientists know that’s not entirely what science is about.

While science should give answers to society’s problems, it’s easy for scientists to feel pressured to publish results that will have a great effect on society before thoroughly examining them.

This means scientists can be tempted to exaggerate their results. Researchers in nutrition have often repeated the claim that eating breakfast prevents obesity.

Yet a 2013 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found the link between eating breakfast and losing weight was weak and, at best, due to other factors.

Of course, this does not mean everyone should stop eating breakfast. It only means we don’t know the exact role breakfast has on weight. While the media needs editors and reporters who understand how to interpret scientific findings, scientists shouldn’t feel pressured to publish exciting, novel results without skepticism and scrutiny.

Researchers early in their careers often need to brand and sell their work into something attractive in order to have successful futures. Even my friends and I, undergraduate researchers, have felt the “publish or perish” pressure in our 
research labs.

Phil Richerme, a recently-hired professor of physics at IU, said starting off your career as a research scientist is like running a small business. You have to make your research relevant in order to apply for funding. But at the end of the day, it’s about the science.

This means researchers should make sure their results have the greatest significance to society while balancing what makes science credible and reliable to begin with. This could mean publishing negative results, interpreting conclusions carefully or challenging what we already accept as true.

This way, scientists can do justice to their research while having successful careers. Instead of the dirty game of straight-up selling themselves, they can give value to quality 
scientific work.

Many students have told me my degree in physics will prove marketable in the future. I’ve been surprised because I rarely look at my interest in science as a way to be economically productive. For me, science has always been about rigorously investigating and interpreting information.

The general public needs to understand science is more than just a way to give results. Christine Aschwanden, FiveThirtyEight’s lead science writer, wrote, “We can’t expect every dollar to turn a positive result. Most of the things you try don’t work out — that’s just the nature of the process.”

In a quote often attributed to physicist Richard Feynman, “Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”

While everyone should use science to provide solutions for society, we need to realize there’s more to science than the product.

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