We want our spaceships and transmogrifiers

Nov 16, 2016 at 10:47 am
We want our spaceships and transmogrifiers

After a brief hiatus from my research career, during which I pursued crying a lot and not having any money, I returned to my current job. This was about the same time Donald Trump was working to become the Republican nominee. I had a lot of conversations with friends of all political persuasions about what it would mean for this man to be the figurehead of a major political party.

After one heated conversation, my Trump-supporting friend attempted to ease the tension by asking about my new job. I explained I would be working for a nonprofit that evaluates public health interventions. Basically that entails evaluating the impact of federal grants. Research scientists then make recommendations for future projects and report any noteworthy findings to the scientific community. My role would be providing support services for those evaluations.

“Pork!” He proclaimed. “This is why America is going broke!”

He had no further questions and was not interested in hearing about the realities of my job. There is no point in attempting to advocate the usefulness of public health evaluation to someone who doesn’t value research or improvement of public health services.

The conversation has moved on to whether Donald Trump is such a person.

At this point, it is not clear how the new administration will approach federal funding for scientific research or public health. Trump, consistent in his inconsistency, has been contradictory about his position on the matter; at times referring to the National Institutes of Health as “terrible,” and, at other times, expressing excitement about scientific discovery. He has promised not to include public health in a federal hiring freeze, but he has vowed to cut housing assistance and repeal the Affordable Care Act.

These are not the positions of a person who prioritizes health and wellness of the population, or even understands it.

In this regard, he embodies the attitudes of many Americans. Even among those excited by innovation, they expect that science will be sexy and research, profound. Miracle cures are celebrated, while public health advances go unrecognized, or deemed wasteful. If the results of a study are not mind-bending, the general consensus is that the project was a misuse of time and money. I cringe when people say about publicized studies, “Well, duh. I could have told you that.”

That is the mantra of the overconfident and miseducated. It indicates a basic misunderstanding of data collection and study design: The intellectual challenge of research is not the reporting of answers. It is the asking of questions.

We, as a country, need to ask more, smarter questions, and we need to stop assuming we have the answers, especially in fields where we have no formal training or experience.

I fear that our national lack of patience and low curiosity will worsen under Trump. An electorate that devalues and misunderstands the responsibilities of the president enough to elect a man with no experience in public policy, does not seem likely to recognize or respect expertise in any field. We have chosen a man whose attention span mirrors our own collective shortcomings in executive functioning. We want our spaceships and transmogrifiers. Who has time for boring reports about lead poisoning and water pipes, and why are our tax dollars paying for elitists to tell us clean water is important? Duh.

This country needs boring research. We need more scientific studies that appear frivolous to lay people. If we fund only high-impact projects, we limit career opportunities for young scientists. Yes, there is an argument to be made about job creation. Scientists and technicians have families to feed, and the last thing we need is a bunch of bored, broke post-docs running the streets, causing statistically-significant mischief.

More important, though, expertise is developed slowly, and asking smart questions takes practice. If we want to have world-renowned experts doing cutting edge work 30 years from now, new grads need the space to develop skills and leadership. If we want a world-class public health, we need to thoroughly investigate the effectiveness of our current system. That means we invest now into work that no one outside the scientific community cares about. That means we trust experts we have now to ask the right questions. Maybe we’ll be astounded.