The Endless Frontier
There’s not a lot going for uncertainty.
As Harvard professor emeritus of zoology and biology Richard Lewontin wrote in the preface to his book “Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA”, “a simple and dramatic theory that explains everything makes good press, good radio, good TV, and best-selling books.” Meanwhile, he noted, “if one's message is that things are complicated, uncertain, and messy, that no simple rule or force will explain the past and predict the future of human existence, there are rather fewer ways to get that message across.”
The accessibility of science to the general public has somewhat of a backwards story. For a while in the early 19th century, many could build microscopes or pick up books to identify rock or animal species and take part in scientific truth-seeking in forests or along coastlines. But by the late 19th century and especially after World War II, science became increasingly professionalized and expensive; current massive genome sequencing and particle accelerator projects feature hundreds of contributors per paper. The gap widens between scientists and the potentially interested but more passive public.
On the flip side, science and society are more linked than ever. We don’t have to look further than the day’s top headlines to see how immunology and engineering permeate our lives.
Last year, scientists developed mRNA Covid-19 vaccines at historic speed. That wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for scientists like Katalin Kariko, who has laid the groundwork for mRNA vaccine development since the 1990s.
Kariko’s own career, however, nearly ended in 1995, and her story shows how science funding mechanisms in the U.S. have failed us.
Last month, in an open letter to his science adviser and nominee for a new cabinet-level science policy position, President Joe Biden asked Eric Lander, a systems biology professor at Harvard Medical School and director of Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute, to urgently consider the growing interplay between science and society.
This letter arrives as we are at a juncture in scientific history. Especially visibly during this pandemic, science and technology are far more intimately connected to our national security, information dissemination, and economy than ever before. In his letter, Biden poses several critical questions: How will our public health system learn from the pandemic? How will America ensure our global leadership in technology, address climate change, and guarantee that the rewards of science and tech are shared across the country?