Shirola: Science is vital to our society, but it is under attack

Wesley Shirola, Columnist

There are arguably not many things that have contributed so much to our society as science has over the course of our history. Indeed, scientists have existed since the first human civilization in ancient Mesopotamia, where they curiously observed and recorded the world around them. However, only a handful of ancient people seemed to live and breathe for scientific knowledge and progress, with most intellectuals focusing on more so-called artistic endeavors. That all changed, however, in the 17th century, when a scientific revolution rapidly swept across Europe. A breadth of new knowledge and understanding of the natural world poured out, and modern-day science as we know it was born.

Around 1600, Galileo Galilei discovered the principle of inertia, setting the stage for an exploration of motion. In 1609, Johannes Kepler looked to the heavens and published his first two laws of planetary motion explaining that the planets move in elliptical orbits around the sun. Decades later, Robert Hooke published a book detailing his use of a microscope to observe the simplest form of life: the cell. The list goes on.

The scientific revolution of the 17th century quickly propelled science from a state of unsophisticated, curious observation to a significantly advanced and revolutionary field of study, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Ultimately, it likely inspired many of the world’s future scientists, from the likes of Albert Einstein and Ivan Pavlov to Northwestern’s very own chemistry Prof. Fraser Stoddart.

While we live in a golden age for scientific discovery — scientists are constantly making revolutionary achievements and new findings in everything from exoplanets to artificial intelligence — the field of science is under attack, as anti-science activism seems to be spreading throughout most of the developed world. And as many of us have seen, the U.S. is not immune.

Climate change deniers hold political office and craft environmental policy. The anti-vaccination camp still prospers. Animal rights activists, who lobby against using animals for scientific research, jeopardize further research and drug testing. A food crisis abounds while policymakers do nothing about it, seemingly in fear of genetically modified foods and other scientific interventions, and public officials constantly and carelessly dismiss scientific findings.

Last March, President Donald Trump proposed his 2018 budget which includes sharp reductions in funding across the full suite of science agencies. The U.S. government has always positioned itself as a strong proponent of science and one of the most consistent backers of scientific research and development, but that will quickly change if Trump’s budget proposal passes through Congress.

Fortunately, it seems unlikely that Trump’s budget proposal will survive Congress in its current form, but we must do everything we can to ensure that it doesn’t. Scientists and researchers across the country have already begun to unite to save science. Those efforts need to continue, but the message that science is essential to our well-being needs to expand and reach more people. Scientists must talk about the importance of their work not only to those in government, but also to their family, friends and neighbors.

As students at one of the world’s top research universities, what can we do to restore society’s trust in science and ensure that it continues to flourish and better the lives of future generations? The surest thing we can do is relay our firsthand awareness of the critical role research institutions play in advancing scientific discoveries to the general public and to the U.S. government.

Albert Einstein once said, “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” It is up to us to make sure that his words always ring true, and that science forever prospers.

Wesley Shirola is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.