“Today’s climate of controversy, confusion, and too often outright hysteria, compounded by exaggeration and often lies, has brought us to a real crisis, a crisis of confidence in ourselves, a crisis of credibility, and we’re all close to totally disbelieving one another.” - Jules Bergman
We all live science. Every day.
Science engineered the crops used to make our morning breakfast, designed the vehicles in which we commute to work, and created the technology on which you’re currently reading this. Science, at its heart, is simple: it’s about exploring the world and looking for answers.
In a way, every child currently irritating their parent with the incessant question of, ‘why is the sky blue?’ is a scientist. So if science is so central to our existence as intelligent, self-aware beings, why do we see it as so far removed from us? (As one article put so succinctly, “even doorknobs are technology.”)
The statistics don’t lie: research by the British Science Association in 2015 revealed that over a quarter (27%) of the UK population feel that ‘science is not for them’, with 20% revealing that they only see science as a school or academic subject, and less than 15% saying that they would actively seek out science news, events, activities or entertainment. For one reason or another, we’ve stopped seeing science as integral to society: an ironic survey response, given that the people responding to that survey either did so on an electronic device, one of the greatest scientific inventions of our era, or on paper, one of China’s crowning achievements during the Han Dynasty.
This idea that science is the realm of ‘scientists’ - occurring in high-tech labs and secret basements, rather than every time we bake a cake, drive a car or sit down around a table and metabolise food into energy - marks a fundamental disconnect between us and it. This is one of the reasons why it’s been suggested we’re transitioning into a post-science society.
We hardly have to look back far into the past to see the benefits science has conferred upon us even in our own lifetimes; advancements in everything from nanomedicine to space travel have handed us a quality of life our ancestors could only dream of, alongside the ability to look further into the secrets of our origins than ever before.
But what about science’s other, indirect benefits? Like a spider’s web, the effects of practising and prioritising science ripple out to the very corners of a society, having deeply beneficial - even lifesaving - impacts behind the scenes.
Let’s take security. There’s a whole host of science that goes into making people, businesses and countries secure; from behavioural science identifying terrorism suspects, to computer sciences proofing banking apps against hacking. So far, so obvious - but the science of security reaches further than you might imagine.
Global warming, one of the biggest threats of our time, has wide reaching security implications. As the planet warms, we urgently need to ensure food security for the large swathes of the planet that will inevitably be hit with drought and famine. And researchers are facing up to the challenge: agri-science research has improved UK wheat yields by 900% over the last 2 centuries, whilst plant scientists are now protecting crops through methods as diverse as exploiting symbiotic plant partnerships with fungi to manipulating rodent behaviour to prevent pest infestations.
When it comes to schools, most would agree that science education equals social improvement. But looking further, it’s key to recognise how science itself can improve education. EdTech, or education technology, is booming worldwide - not least because of how it can provide elegant solutions to challenges such as disability or difficult learning environments. NGOs and businesses in developing countries are exploring innovative new uses of technologies to support the education of students with visual impairments, or to make free digital education accessible to underserved communities worldwide.
Projects like these - many of them designed to teaching science - owe their existence to science-driven tech and design. And it’s a feedback loop - the more that programs like these are rolled out to children worldwide, the more of those children will grow up to be the software developers, computer scientists and researchers of the future.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, science improves women’s lives. In the words of Lakshmi Puri, information technology allows political participation - as well as for women and girls to advocate for their own rights in their own words.
From another angle, women’s participation in science is vital to drive its progress. In the next decade, it’s estimated that 2.5 million engineers and technicians will be needed in sub-Saharan Africa alone to achieve improved access to clean water and sanitation. If 50% of the population are denied their potential to fulfil this role, how can we ever hope to achieve this goal?
Science allows us to imagine a better world, whilst challenging us not to accept our current situation. The status quo - poor sanitation, limited healthcare, lack of education - is no match for the power of science. But to truly unleash that power requires imagination, a tool that science - which, after all, is the story of the universe - is only too happy to provide.