A world of denial
Nobelist laments loss of public trust in science
The winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry has accused Western political leaders of “selling our children’s futures” by failing to support and act upon climate change research.
Frances Arnold (pictured inset), professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, told Times Higher Education that she was “deeply distressed to see very large numbers of people, especially in the US and probably also in the UK, distrusting science”.
“Science and technology is the future of both our countries, is the future of the world,” said Professor Arnold, who won the Nobel for her work on the directed evolution of enzymes.
While she said that it was unclear where mistrust – “of science…of rational thinking and education in general” – stemmed from, Professor Arnold said that governments had a responsibility to lead by example and act upon scientists’ warnings about the future of the planet.
She was particularly critical of US president Donald Trump, who earl- ier this month claimed that climate change scientists had “a very big political agenda”. While Mr Trump stated that he no longer believed that climate change was a hoax, as he tweeted in 2012, he said that it would probably “change back again”.
“The current [ US] administration’s attitude towards climate change and the value of science bothers me,” she said. “We are selling our children’s and grandchildren’s futures. It’s the job of government to help lead us into a better future, and I don’t mean just the next five years.”
The gap between Professor Arnold’s views and those driving White House policy may be inferred from the good causes to which she intends to donate her share of the SKr9 million (£ 769,000) prize money. Caltech, “who have been very good to me”, will benefit, but the Humane Society of the United States and, notably, Planned Parenthood, will profit too.
Professor Arnold, who shared the chemistry prize with George Smith, formerly professor at the University of Missouri, and Sir Gregory Winter, from the MRC Laboratory of
Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge, became only the fifth woman to win the chemistry prize in its 117-year history.
She likened her life since winning the prize to “a tornado, and I am a leaf”, but said that the experience had been worthwhile for the messages of support she had received, including “so many from young women”.
“I am pleased [the Nobel committee] chose me, but I am thrilled a woman was recognised,” Professor Arnold continued. “There are many role models [for female scientists] but their faces don’t show up on the front page of papers.”
But there is much more work to be done, she added. “I keep telling [young women] – don’t leave this great career just for the boys. This is a wonderful job to have and to leave it to the men is a real shame,” Professor Arnold said.
“We have just begun to scratch the surface [of science]; we are just at the stage of beginning to understand the biological world and engineering in the biochemical world. I feel like an explorer inside a beautiful cave full of diamonds on the wall just waiting to be picked. There are so many discoveries yet to be made.”