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Our culture is becoming increasingly interested in science. We are obsessed with putting our children in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) clubs, bolstering school STEM programs, and pushing for women’s involvement in STEM careers. A product having been “backed by science” causes a sense of trust in the consumer. If a hypothesis is proven by science, a new medical treatment found, or an astronomical discovery made, it now not only makes ripples in the scientific community but also in the general community at large. Of course, not every discovery is brought to light. The young professor finding a novel variation in the protein structure of a bacterial cell, the computer scientist creating a new algorithm to solve a complex but obscure problem, or the engineer finally circumventing the problems they have had in their device for the past two years are never recognized. Science that is not flashy, sensational, or headline-worthy is often kept in the shadows which can have devastating impacts.
Science is a mechanism that builds on past discoveries. Behind every breakthrough are countless other researchers who have paved the way through seemingly insignificant discoveries. In order to find a cure for cancer or build an ever-more fuel efficient car, there must first be the foundational discovery of the behavior of a specific cancer cell or the multiple minuscule findings in fuel efficiency that were almost forgotten due to lack of exposure. Without these, we would never have the noteworthy discoveries that pique the interest of so many in our society. Yet, the only publicly valued discoveries are those that do make headlines, that are shareable on Facebook, or that go trending on twitter. The repercussions of this scientific sensationalism are making small but dangerous ripples in the research community. Funding for smaller and seemingly insignificant projects is often rejected in lieu of larger and projects deemed as more important. Department review boards dismiss the proposals of younger professors in favor of those older and more established, quashing the young innovative minds our culture strives so hard to cultivate. Risky projects are jettisoned because all the funding committee cares about is positive and affirming results, forgetting that some of the most important discoveries have been made through experiments that failed in the beginning.
"The repercussions of this scientific sensationalism are making small but dangerous ripples in the research community."
Not only is this sensationalistic science affecting the ability of researchers to perform their experimentation, but it also is affecting the integrity of the projects themselves, causing a so-called reproducibility crisis. In a study from 2017, Northwestern University conducted an experiment where they attempted to replicate the results of prominent studies on cancer treatments but were entirely unsuccessful. One of the underlying tenets of science is its reproducibility, but the rush to break ground, get published, and make headlines is so great that it often causes premature publication of studies before the researchers have vetted their results entirely. This is most certainly one of the most worrying aspects of popular science today. The reproducibility crisis will slowly undermine the credibility of scientific studies until it erodes entirely and there is no respect in society left.
Whether it is your child joining the robotics club, that picture on Facebook you just shared about a new species discovered, or the device you are reading this article on, science and technology is an integral part of your life. You play an important role in the survival of robust science, even if you do not realize it. We must both individually and as a society support the risky, unpopular, and seemingly insignificant science, not just the headline-worthy science. It is the only way we can continue to advance and the only way that science will be able to survive.
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