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“Science is about advancing humanity as fast as possible”

Read time: 5 mins

Photo: Vignesh Kamat / Research Matters

 

Special arrangement with The Deccan Herald.

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known”, said Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer and science writer. The search for that ‘something’ is what has led us so far in the journey of humanity. We have stumbled upon accidental discoveries, made some great inventions through research and have strived to understand why things work the way they do. In this quest, there is one thing that we have realized -- science offers limitless possibilities!

During his recent visit to India, Nobel Laureate Prof. Brian Schmidt, Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU), shared his views on today’s state of affairs regarding science education, science communication and the role of scientists and government in helping the society benefit from science. A renowned astrophysicist and a science communicator himself, Prof. Schmidt was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shares with Prof. Saul Perlmutter and Prof. Adam Riess, for providing evidence for the acceleration of the expanding Universe.

Prof. Schmidt has been active in the realm of academia since the early days of his career, having worked at universities in the USA and Australia. He is a strong advocate of strengthening the public education system and focusing on the right training necessary for teachers. In fact, soon after winning the Nobel Prize, he donated $100,000 of the prize money to the ‘PrimaryConnections’ programme -- an initiative of the Australian Academy of Science that trains primary school teachers in the areas of science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM).

Another cause close to Prof. Schmidt’s heart is inspiring people to pursue an education in science – a foundation for much advancement in today’s world. “An education in science also offers a great career”, he asserts adding a piece of advice -- “The world is changing very quickly and if you want to change the way it looks in the future, get a science degree!”

Prof. Schmidt firmly believes that there are ample interesting career options for scientists not only in academia, but also in industry.  “A science education gives you all the tools you need to adapt to a changing world. What’s more, you make a pretty good salary and you are assured of a very good job no matter what happens”, he adds, citing examples of his students who have completed their PhDs and are now pursuing exciting careers in industry.

The other important reason the professor is involved in science education is because it serves to help design government policies that benefit the society to a large extent. “Policies should be influenced by evidence”, he opines adding “it is quite unfortunate that most policy decisions made by politicians today are political decisions lacking a thorough understanding of the consequences”. They are influenced and guided by ‘think tanks’, which frame policies and advice governments. Some of these policies could be ill researched or lacking convincing evidence.

“Politicians, who are policy makers, should be informed with evidence, helping them to make better decisions, and to understand the consequences of their decisions. However, these evidences are often not black and white, but grey. The role of scientists and the scientific community lies not in deciding the ‘best’ policy, but in putting forth possible options and their related consequences”, remarks Prof. Schmidt, emphasizing the importance of building the confidence and trust needed to translate some of the specialized research work into a context useful for politicians. 

And how can scientists help in science reaching out to the average person on the road? “Science education, coupled with science communication, serves the purpose of informing the broader public”, points out Prof. Schmidt. “Effective science communicators are today able to reach millions of people, getting the point across to a layperson. It might upset some scientists who wonder why someone else is talking about their work, but I believe it is because science communicators are much better at it”, he adds.

The professor is also quick to talk about a major challenge in science education – the expense of research. Throughout the world, many universities are cash starved and hence the burden is on students who need to shell out huge tuition fees to obtain a degree. While university costs are driven by other factors, an important aspect that is making science expensive is the process of sharing research related information.

Today, there are a lot of journals in many fields of science that are for profit, thus being extraordinarily expensive to be afforded by universities in developing countries. This makes accessing scientific information a privilege to a few. “Would I as an author want my research in a journal that cannot be accessed by a scientist in India? I would say no! I might rather be willing to share my research out in the open”, says Prof. Schmidt, pointing out the revolution ‘open access’ journals are bringing in.

“I think science needs to be open and researchers should not be withholding information like industry does. Science is about sharing. It is about advancing humanity as fast as conceivably possible. It is about being as open as possible”, opines the Nobel Laureate. He urges scientists to draw inspiration from ‘arxiv’, a repository of electronic preprints of scientific papers started way back in 1992. “In fact, I was the fourth person to use it”, he recollects proudly. “We are in the middle of a transition today in terms of accessing scientific research”, he says.

At a time when science is costing billions of taxpayers’ money, what makes scientific research stand out and be relevant? “Science is expensive. But what academia does better than the industry is sharing information”, says Prof. Schmidt, arguing that scientific research is worth every dollar spent with a high return-on-investment. “We don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. The moment we stop being open, we end up being expensive”, he signs off.