How science will save the world

Brian Schmidt is a professor at the Australian National University. In 2011 he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. He is one of several Nobel Prize-winning scientists participating at the Annual Meeting 2016.

After winning your Nobel Prize for providing evidence that the universe is accelerating in its expansion, you admitted feeling a great responsibility to educate people as to the importance of science. Why is science so important for society?

Science is humanity’s way of understanding the universe, which allows us to predict the consequences of actions, and ultimately allows us to enhance our lives. We live on a small planet that will soon be inhabited by 8 billion people. To do this successfully, we’re going to need science to solve the problems that will arise when so many people live on a planet that is not designed, naturally, to handle those numbers. In the short term, science helps make our lives better; but in the long term, it will be crucial to our continued affluent survival.

You once said: “If you do the best work on earth and no-one cares, you really haven’t done much.” In a field where it might take decades for research to be converted into something useful, how can scientists do a better job of communicating its value?

I believe in giving everything in life, including science, a narrative. Tracing back all the technology and basic research in the iPhone is someone else’s narrative, but a very good one. In my own field, who would have thought that people working in my area – fundamental physics – would have produced the world wide web and Wi-Fi – arguably two of the most influential and transformational technologies of the past 50 years (and I would say the world wide web is the MOST influential advancement in my lifetime). In the end, we do my style of science because it is interesting, but we pay for it because it is valuable.

Do you think that a better understanding of the importance of science could help accelerate scientific breakthroughs, for example by increasing funding for research?

The most important part of understanding science is all about understanding evidence. It doesn’t matter if you are a farmer or an astrophysicist (I’m both), understanding evidence, through a scientific process, allows you and allows society to make rational and very good decisions. Better understanding of science across the board means we give every person the chance to shine in science, if that is where their talents lie. How many Einsteins are out there? Not many. But the ones who are, are most certainly spread across the world – and most, currently, are undiscovered.

How else can we accelerate scientific breakthroughs?

There are a few key things we could do better:

1. Support young people. Young scientists are at their most creative; their unfragmented lives allow them to be focused, and they are up-to-date with the leading edge of technologies. We under-invest in young scientists and over-invest in old scientists (like me!).

2. Keep science in the public domain. Competition in science is good, to a point, but science is at its most effective when the data, techniques, software and cultures are in the public domain – not kept secret to ensure one’s competitors cannot catch up. I strongly believe you should always try to keep in front by continually outperforming your competitors – not by keeping what you know hidden from the outside world.

When you were preparing to share the findings that eventually won you the Nobel Prize, you said you were concerned. After all, those findings – which you’ve described as “crazy” – went against much of the previous research, even from your own team. What role should this type of risk-taking play in scientific research?

Risk-taking is imperative in science – but I always tell people, learn to fail quickly, and move on to the next thing. Big fails are very dangerous to your career. In our case, I was genuinely alarmed when, after three years, we got a crazy result that was hard to believe. It seemed to be I had violated my own rule – I was about to fail after three years of hard work. That being said, I had no indications until we got “the wrong answer” that we were failing, and so when, after exhaustive scrutiny by the whole team, the result persisted, I knew we had to tell the world.

In a recent op-ed on climate change, you wrote that “science makes progress by challenging itself, looking for failed predictions, inconsistencies, or alternative ways to approach a problem”. What scientific theories can we no longer take for granted, and how will questioning them help us approach the many challenges we face in new, perhaps more productive ways?

Scientists, ultimately, can take nothing for granted. Which to many seems at odds with the fundamental hierarchical system on which scientific evidence is founded, but is actually at the heart of science. We can simultaneously challenge everything, by building up layer upon layer of complexity based on generations of work. When everything is in close to perfect working order and yet still our observations fail to live up to our scientific predictions, that’s when life gets interesting. It tells you something is wrong in the current orthodoxy. But a lot of what we do is right – and so it is imperative for scientists to not play it safe, but rather challenge the orthodoxy in a wide variety of ways, if we are going to find out our false understandings, so that we can make progress.

As we get more and more data, we are learning that interpreting data is subtle. No longer is a clinical result with 95% significance particularly interesting – we need to understand how many unreported null results there are to understand if that 95% really is 95% confidence.

And finally, scientists need to appreciate that to have impact, increasingly, we need to understand the human side of what we are doing. We can no longer work in isolation. Understanding the ethics and how our work interacts with humans and the way they think and behave is paramount. If we can work in parallel with this human side, our technological progress could have the impact that the planet so desperately needs.

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