[SCMP Column] The Value of Science

May 15, 2017

Donald Trump may be the US’s first “post-fact” president, but is he also the first “post-science” president? And should we be alarmed?

Ask many in the US’s scientific community, and the answer is a deafening “Yes”. Ask anyone looking for US leadership to constrain the environmental harm being done by climate change, and you would be deafened too. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s appointee as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has sued the agency 13 times, and has repeatedly called for its dissolution. Staff have created an “alt-site” to preserve data on global temperature trends in the face of threats to wipe government websites clean of such data.

Rick Perry, Trump’s new Energy Secretary, five years ago called for the Department of Energy to be disbanded. He is now tasked to head it.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy, which has coordinated US policy on development of the internet, driverless cars and clean energy, is adrift. It has no director. It has no Chief Technology Officer. Three other top director positions are vacant.

In short, the US science community is in a tizz. Jonathan Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences commented in the highly-reputed Scientific American magazine: “Our government’s relationship with facts, scientific reality and objective truth has never been more constrained… Many members of Congress seem opposed to the very pursuit of facts and have tried to place draconian restrictions on what federal scientists can research, publish or even discuss.

“So to the Trump administration, I would say this: if your apparent disregard for facts is just a series of missteps, so be it. Say so. Fix it… But if this is actually part of your governing philosophy, I would give you a warning on behalf of my fellow scientists: Do not mess with us. Do not bury the truth. Do not interfere with the free and open pursuit of science.”

Already over the decades conservative figures in US politics have constrained and skewed federally-funded science. David Hemenway, professor of health policy at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, last month pointed an awkward spotlight on research awards by the Centres for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health (NIH): over the past 40 years, the US has seen 2,000 deaths from cholera, diphtheria, polio and rabies, and these diseases have attracted 486 NIH research awards. Over the same time frame, the US has suffered 4 million gun deaths, but received just three research awards on guns and gun-related issues.

Some in the US claim that it should not be the job of government agencies to fund scientific research – that business should provide funds. But this is disingenuous. Over the past half century, the US private sector has contributed just 6 per cent of total research funding. The internet, GPS, and almost all of the Silicon Valley economy owes its existence to US government investment in pure science. So an “anti-science” administration has potential to do great harm – not just to scientific innovation in the US, but to scientific endeavour around the world, given the critical importance of the US in scientific leadership.

Some may argue that I, and these US scientists, are getting worried over nothing. Already there are some who say that Trump’s bark is much worse than his bite, and that there are fact-based “adults” around him who are – where it counts – making him much less ignorant of inconvenient facts. Take the very pragmatic-looking US-China trade agreement announced late last week, which is light-years away from Trump’s alarming election stump rhetoric on China in October last year. Between then and now, facts have got in the way to very positive effect – and long may that continue to be so.

But as I have fretted this issue, two related concerns are keeping me awake. The first is triggered by a magisterial 1939 paper written by Abraham Flexner, then at the US’s Institute for Advanced Study (where Einstein and many other scientists found refuge after fleeing Hitler’s Germany), carrying the magnificent title “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge”. In short, he was complaining that scientists are under far too much pressure to justify themselves in terms of usefulness, and that by far the most important scientific discoveries of recent centuries have been driven by curiosity, rather than any focus on a useful outcome.

This is a truth that ought to come naturally to me. I grew up in a tiny inconsequential town in the UK called Grantham – famous for just two people: Mrs Thatcher and Sir Isaac Newton. Do you think Newton had any glimmering of thought about usefulness when he lounged lazily against an apple tree in the garden of his Colsterworth home and started to wonder why apples fell downwards? He was simply curious, without a thought for possible use.

Flexner provides many examples of history’s drunken scientific walk, and the serendipity behind most significant discoveries – like Michael Faraday who made the fundamental discoveries behind electricity over more than three decades of exploring first chemical, and then physics problems. As Flexner recalls: “At no period in his unmatched career was he interested in utility. He was absorbed in disentangling the riddles of the universe.”

As the US and other administrations wring their hands over national research spending, and try to provide political justification, they need to keep in mind the usefulness of apparently useless scientific pursuits. Even with no apparent value, this must surely be a luxury we have to afford.

The second concern was triggered by some profound vacuousness from Diane Abbott, shadow Home Secretary in Britain’s beleaguered Labour Party. When asked in a radio interview what the cost would be of employing 10,000 extra police officers, she apparently said: “Well.. um… £300,000… No, sorry (pause) they will cost… about, about £80 million.” In fact, if each earned an average of £30,000 a year, the total would be £300 million. As one commentator noted: “It is perfectly possible to be a member of the British ruling class and be astonishingly bad at numbers.”

No wonder we can slip so easily into Donald Trump’s ‘fact-free” universe when so many among us are profoundly innumerate. Illiteracy is not forgivable, but for some weird reason innumeracy is. And that is perhaps why we give our scientists such an unreasonably difficult time.

As I have sat through a week of hand-wringing discussion over the acute shortages of people with science and technology skills, I wonder what this tolerance of innumeracy implies – and not just in the White House. We tolerate this innumeracy and technological illiteracy at our peril.
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