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The Sad State of Our Science, and How to Fix It

By Stephen L. Carter
January 24, 2013 6:30 PM EST
Stephen Carter
Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg
Stephen Carter

There was something ineffably sad about the recent report that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has awarded an $18 million contract to develop an inhabitable balloon to attach to the International Space Station.

You remember NASA, right? The guys who went to the moon? Now they’re sending a balloon into orbit.

I’m not saying that figuring out how to live inside a balloon in the vacuum of space won’t present fascinating technological challenges. But it’s unlikely to capture the public imagination. And given the excitement that science ought to be generating, there’s something a little infra dig about the project -- as if a fancy but aging hotel decided to expand by adding a hallway of prefabricated rooms in the alley.

Science just isn’t fun anymore -- at least not for nonscientists. As the economist Tyler Cowen puts it, “Few women or men dream of dating or marrying a scientist.” Although we’re all delighted to use the latest technological innovations to reach the market, science for its own sake -- the thirst to indulge the human need to know -- seems to be fading.

Inspiring Frontiers

And yet the frontiers of knowledge continue to move, in ways that should thrill and inspire us. Just last week, astrophysicists in the U.K. announced the discovery of the largest physical structure in the known universe: “a celestial structure made up of 73 quasars that is up to 4 billion light years long.” That’s tens of thousands of times the size of our galaxy. In all the centuries of exploring the heavens, we have never come across anything quite so magnificent.

Closer to home, the Curiosity Rover is sending back ever more fantastic images of the Martian landscape, including a beautiful photo of a rock that looks, inexplicably, exactly like a flower. (We’ve had rovers on Mars for nine years.) Then there is Pioneer 10, described by NASA as “Earth’s first emissary into space.” It sent its final signal home 10 years ago this month, but has likely continued its journey toward Aldebaran, 68 light years away.

It’s not that the frontiers of science don’t continue to advance. It’s that hardly anybody is paying attention.

If we’re not careful, science itself -- the expansion of knowledge as a serious endeavor -- will wind up going the way of serious literature. Blakey Vermeule of Stanford University, in her wonderful book “Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?,” explains why literature has such difficulty commanding our attention: “Literary narratives are like antique jalopies on a highway crowded with SUVs.” One reason literature is losing out to more instantaneous pleasures is that it “makes heavy demands on our processing capacities.”

So does science -- a fortiori. Science is hard. Nowadays, the science most of us encounter in everyday life tends to be at the level of applied technology -- that is, a marketable product. We may not be quite where we were toward the end of the 19th century, when many educated people thought that all the great discoveries had been made, but most observers agree that the rate of truly transformative innovation is slowing.

Why would this be? One reason is that fewer young people want to practice science. We can’t achieve great innovations without great discoveries; and we can’t make great discoveries without great discoverers.

Inspiring Respect

Perhaps the outsize returns to finance in recent years have tempted bright minds away from the laboratory. A generation ago, smart children were thrilled at the prospect of a life spent on scientific research. In my own high school days in Ithaca, New York, in the 1970s, the kids who graduated at the top overwhelmingly wanted to pursue physics or mathematics or engineering. A lot of them wound up doing other things -- but at least they pretended to want to be a scientist.

Respect for a profession is important. “When it comes to motivating human beings,” Cowen writes in his book “The Great Stagnation,” “status often matters as much as money.” And one thing that might help elevate the status of science would be a freshened excitement about its possibilities.

There’s an episode of the television show “The West Wing” in which the president tells his advisers that he wants to use his State of the Union message to call for curing cancer within 10 years. His idea is to get Americans excited about a magnificent goal, as they were about putting a man on the moon. But his advisers talk him out of it: All people will want to know, they say, is how much it’s going to cost -- which taxes will have to go up, which programs will have to be cut.

Maybe we really are that jaded. All the more reason to bring science back. We have to make it shiny and bright and attractive again, not as the source of the latest smartphone app but as a generator of genuine excitement about the future.

Cowen is right: to lift the status of science, we have to lift the status of scientists. Imagine if the White House were able to tell the public that President Barack Obama meets regularly with his chief science adviser two or three times a week. Or we might commit ourselves to best our rivals -- principally China -- in the race to the bottom of the ocean. China is building a deep-sea research vessel that will carry up to 30 “oceanauts” thousands of meters deep. Maybe such a project would capture the public’s attention. We’re not going to do it with a space balloon.

Which brings me to a final thought: an annual holiday in honor of our great explorers -- those who have braved daunting odds to expand our frontiers. It’s a great idea -- and the day should honor scientists, too. As blogger and scientist Jeffrey Marlow has pointed out, “Exploration has accounted for one of the only positive unifying moments in American history.” And if you don’t know which moment he’s referring to -- well, that’s a problem that his proposal would help to fix.

(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu or @StepCarter on Twitter.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.

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