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Why Science Matters

When the Wisconsin Academy was founded in 1870, the American fascination with science was in full bloom. Science was opening new windows of discovery into the world around us, redefining what we knew to be true through evidence emerging from research, review, and scientific collaboration. 

In this era, scientists were often isolated in remote locations, and they realized the value in learning from each other. In 1848, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was founded “to promote intercourse between those who are cultivating science in different parts of the United States.” And in 1863 President Lincoln signed the enacting legislation for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in order to “investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art” whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government.

Other societies and academies were forming in this era as well, including many in the young frontier states, and in growing urban areas, such as the Chicago Academy of Sciences. The Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters—one of few that recognized the essential nature of the liberal arts—joined the wave in 1870. 

As with the AAAS and NAS, geology and natural history dominated much of the Wisconsin Academy’s early investigations, as scientists sought to map and catalogue native flora, fauna, and landscape alike. Early editions of our Transactions journal brim with articles by scientists and Academy founders like Increase Lapham and P.R. Hoy describing geological formations likely to contain valuable lead deposits or “Some of the Peculiarities of the Fauna Near Racine.” These scientific findings were shared publicly in the pages of Transactions “for the betterment” of Wisconsin, and many helped inform decisions about economic development as well as the conservation of natural resources.

Lapham, Hoy, and other scientists worked in a time when science was believed to hold the key to unlocking discoveries that would make the future better. I wonder if they would be puzzled by the suspicious—even downright hostile—attitudes toward science in America today?

While every era has its skeptics (tensions between science and some religious beliefs seem to be perennial), in today’s political arena it is shockingly acceptable to proclaim that scientifically proven facts are simply irrelevant. Overwhelming evidence shown to be contrary to one’s position can be dismissed with a simple label of “bad science” or “just a theory.”

Maybe this is just human nature when it comes to politically charged topics, but ignoring evidence when it contradicts what we want to hear is risky at best and disastrous at worst. It also sends a signal that established fact doesn’t matter in public policy process—a key indicator of an ailing democracy.

But it isn’t just our legislative leaders on the hook for science-bashing. Anti-intellectualism is popular these days, and has its own corrosive effect. From labeling science an “elitist” endeavor to perpetuating arguments of false equivalence to supporting conspiracy theories, mass media—including the Internet—has actively contributed to the eclipsing of science from public policy and, well, the public sphere. 

Perhaps more disconcerting than the organized deployment of these strategies in an effort to undermine the scientific establishment is the erosion of tenure in public universities and colleges. Without the protection of tenure, a professor’s research—and position—can easily be terminated by someone in power who finds it objectionable for whatever reason. It’s obvious what kind of chilling influence this could have on the “sifting and winnowing” process that has made the University of Wisconsin a global leader in scientific research.

I’ve known scientists who have spoken out on issues or continued their research on sensitive topics only to pay the price through a flattened career trajectory or lost research dollars. But at least the tenured academic scientists still had their jobs. (Not generally the case for public agency employees.) Without tenure, risk aversion and job security become intermingled in the search for truth. In this we lose something as a society.

Science is a remarkable tool, and blunting a good tool is risky business. The ways we use the facts and findings of science bring us into the discourse of ethics, economics, social and cultural values, and how we choose to govern and support the democratic process. All of these play a role in how policy is developed and implemented. But without sound, rigorous science as a resource, we blind ourselves to the facts and evidence that could help us make better policy—and a better world.

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Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

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