Post-pandemic science and education

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May 2020

Roger D. Blandford
and Kip S. Thorne

American Journal of Physics

Roger is at the School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University

Kip is at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena


Existential threats our society faces: While the onset of a global pandemic should not have come as a great surprise, the chaotic federal response and the heartbreaking loss of life have shaken the faith of many in US institutions and will result in a changed nation and a very different world. Beyond this, a pandemic is only one of several potentially existential threats that we face, also including social breakdown, conflicts and crises over food and other resources, and runaway global warming. 

There is too little broad understanding of these threats, let alone wise, effective action to address them. It seems paradoxical that this national failure has come from a society with signal and public achievements in computing, biomedicine, technology, and physics—achievements by a scientific subculture that seems disconnected from our current political leadership and that appears irrelevant or even threatening to a disturbingly large fraction of the electorate.

Foundations for solutions: Why this disconnect? A full answer is far beyond the scope of this editorial. A more important question is how can we rectify this disconnect? How can we, as a nation, inoculate against the sugar highs of polarizing propaganda in support of the status quo ante and foster a healthier diet of wise choice and informed, successful action? We (Blandford and Thorne, B&T) see three essential foundations for solutions. First, we (in the US) need more politicians with critical thinking and problem-solving backgrounds. Second, we must change American culture so as to facilitate broad, rational, national discussions of hard choices, discussions informed by fact and frankness, not fiction and fantasy. Third, we must grow a workforce that contains the experience and competence to address the threats. The time to begin building these foundations is now, and scientists can contribute majorly. In the words of Sun Tzu, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”
Political shift needed: Our nation's manifest political failures are several. The proper roles of government—addressing problems wisely and fostering an equitable society—have been subsumed by the goals of acquiring and maintaining power. The mode of thinking that dominates Washington politics today is driven by ideology, expediency, and battles against perceived adversaries. Decisions are rarely informed, at least publicly, by the rational, evidence- and data-based thinking that we try to teach our science students. This is due in part to the backgrounds of the politicians. Too few come from problem-solving fields like engineering, medicine, and science. While we all can surely agree that a world run by a gang of Sheldon Coopers would be Hell on Earth, having many more engineers, doctors, and scientists walking the corridors of political power would be a great improvement, not just because of the expertise they could contribute, but through their rational approaches to the challenges that lie ahead. More of us should become political candidates and win elections.
Cultural shift needed: The deficiency of the political culture is really a symptom of a more fundamental problem. Too few of us in the United States are able to understand the difficult choices that confront us today, too few have the ability to think through those choices rationally, and too few even try. We should not be quick to blame this on laziness or moral depravity; our world really has become quite complex. The control system of Model T was simple and direct; that of a Model S is a complicated computational marvel. The divide between those who can deal with today's complex issues and the rest of society may be widening just as fast as the better-publicized gulf between the rich and the poor. Moreover, most experts are segregated into independent priesthoods and cannot parse issues that extend beyond their specialties. How much basic biology and atmospheric chemistry do typical physicists really understand today, let alone citizens who have not had the benefit of a science education? This must change.
Educational shift needed: Today is not the first time we Americans have faced a challenge like this. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite. Although the full context and the response were more nuanced, there is no denying that societal alarm over the satellite's beeping signal helped trigger a major transformation in science education in the United States, and American society benefitted greatly. Today's world is quite different and its threats are more real and profound, but a similar transformation must and can happen again.
While it is impossible to know right now the scale and nature of what we will be facing post-Covid, we (B&T) believe that there will be three imperatives: to transform government, to rebuild the economy, and to make society more equitable. Science has a critical role to play in all three of these, as, of course, do the humanities (especially ethics).
Science and science education: First, we scientists must now begin to think seriously about rebuilding our nation and society in the post-Covid era. We (B&T) believe that science (including engineering, information technology, and medicine), used wisely and with attention to its adaptive and corrective nature, must play a prominent role in this reconstruction—not so much explicitly in the spirit of “Scientists say that…,” but rather implicitly, as a firm basis for public policy that is implemented by a dedicated civil service.


Read the full article at the American Journal of Physics