Emerging Technologies

Why the world needs to embrace science

Rob W. van Leen
Chief Innovation Officer, dsm-firmenich
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Science has the potential to change the world. Over the past two hundred years, humanity has experienced changes at a pace that few could have imagined. This has been largely driven by scientific advancement, and has brought with it great economic, technological and societal progress.

Science has, for example, cured disease, brought us closer together through travel and modern communications technology, and helped us better understand and respond to environmental challenges. Just a few short years ago, we assumed the challenges of smallpox and acid rain were beyond solving – they have now been largely overcome.

Science is just as essential today. We face a host of societal and environmental issues, with challenges like climate change, energy efficiency, and food and resource security. We need to transition from an unsustainable fossil fuel-based linear present to the bio-based, circular economy of the future based both on more sustainable inputs (chemicals, materials, fuels) and more recycling and reuse. Humanity must feed an increasingly large and affluent world population healthily, while reducing its carbon footprint.

Despite its unquestionable importance, we must recognize that science today does not have the status and importance it once had. Studies show that scientists are not listened to enough, scientific facts are often overlooked, or questioned, in favour of emotion and gut feeling, and recent polls suggest an increasing disconnect between science and public opinion on key issues – not only climate change, but also genetic modification and even evolution itself.

This shift in perceptions towards science has been driven by a number of factors. Clear, direct, open-minded public debate around scientific topics and scientific advancement is often lacking. The increasing specialization of scientific disciplines and fast-moving technological advances mean many people feel lost and insecure. The world is seen as too complex – so people reject progress and retreat back to what they know.

This situation has worsened further since society became more often ruled by opinion instead of facts; by the ever-increasing politicization of science, with NGOs and politicians using science for political gain; and the often unbalanced reporting of science by the media, where real expertise is often drowned out.

On climate change in particular, the continuing public scepticism towards the scientific consensus around a significant human role in climate change is disconcerting, and both politicians and the media are reluctant to discourage anti-science sentiments among the general population.

If we are to fully embrace the opportunity of science then we need to put it back in its rightful place in society. It has to be recognized as the foundation upon which we build economic, technological and societal progress. To do so, we must recognize the issues that have undermined its standing and offer solutions that begin to turn the tide.

We must be better at communicating and explaining science. Scientists must engage with the general public and fight to change an environment where good science is too often drowned out by sensationalism and commonly-held fears. If we want people that are non-experts to be inspired by science, we need to give it a “human face” and tell the story of science in simple and accessible ways that people can relate to, and be inspired by. We must focus on the success stories of enterprising individuals who use their intelligence and drive to make the world a better place. These pioneers must be the ambassadors around which we communicate a more positive scientific narrative.

We must also stand up for science in the face of myths, conspiracy theories and misunderstanding. Sensationalism in politics, the NGO world and the media has undermined the reputation and standing of science. The resulting misconceptions can cause major issues, which is why scientists must be braver and more active in countering falsehoods.

Science has helped us solve some of the most important societal challenges, and has created opportunities that were unimaginable even a few years ago. Yet science often gets the blame when things go wrong and not enough credit when things go right. There are, for example, a number of science-enabled innovations and developments which have, or will have, a transformative impact on the way we manufacture, cure diseases and shrink our carbon footprints. These include 3D-printing, personalized medicine, bio-based materials, connected cars and more advanced renewable energies. If others don’t recognize the contribution of science to these advances, then we will have to make them aware ourselves.

Although understanding and communicating the positive impact of science is vital, it is not enough. We also need to make changes to the ways in which we pursue science. We need to find new and better ways to conduct and translate science into innovation.

The old siloed approach to pursuing science has to be broken down. A collaborative effort of governments, academia, civil society and businesses around the world is needed because they all have a vital contribution to make. Science can do great things if we draw on expertise from across fields. Physicists, engineers, chemistry researchers and biologists are working together in some of the world’s biggest companies and most prestigious universities to help solve the societal challenges of climate change, feeding a growing world and improving health outcomes around the globe.

Of course science is about people, and we need to attract the best. The traditional responsibility for encouraging the young to consider science as a career lies with the education system. We must ensure science is taught at a young age and that a fascination for discovery is passed on to our youngest generations. And there needs to be a special focus on encouraging girls to get more interested and involved in fields where they are still disproportionally underrepresented.

It also very important to encourage and support young scientists by recognizing and rewarding ground-breaking research through scholarships and grants. That is one of the reasons why we have launched initiatives like our DSM Science & Technology Awards which reward excellence in innovative PhD research across many fields.

Just as science was the cornerstone of great advances of the past, so it will be fundamental to meeting the societal and environmental challenges of tomorrow. But if we are to embrace the massive opportunities that science offers then we need to find ways in which we can rebuild its reputation and status. This must be built around communication, outreach, cooperation and inclusiveness if it is to fully succeed. We hope that others will join us in pursuing this objective.

Author: Rob van Leen is Chief Innovation Officer and Member of the Executive Committee at Royal DSM 

Image: A scientist separates proteins by gel electrophoresis in a lab at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, July 15, 2013. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

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