When so­ci­ety’s faith in science erodes

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY ALAN TOWNSEND The writer is a pro­fes­sor and as­so­ciate vice chan­cel­lor for re­search at the Univer­sity of Colorado at Boul­der. He has also served as a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive at the Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion.

Cancer won’t seem to leave my fam­ily alone. My grand­mother, my mother, my fa­ther. Then my daugh­ter, her fifth Christ­mas spent in in­ten­sive care af­ter 11 hours of brain surgery. A year later, it came for my wife. Our daugh­ter sat look­ing small and frail, shielded by a pair of over­size pink head­phones, as the ra­di­ol­o­gist strug­gled to tell us there were two large le­sions in my wife’s brain.

My wife, a woman of un­com­mon bril­liance and strength, took her fi­nal breath on New Year’s Eve in 2015, her body like a wraith. But she took that breath at home, sur­rounded by peo­ple she loved, hav­ing said good­bye on her terms. Science gave our fam­ily that gift.

I’m a sci­en­tist. So was my wife. We un­der­stood the de­vel­op­men­tal hic­cup that put the tu­mor in my daugh­ter’s brain, the cel­lu­lar tricks be­hind my wife’s ex­per­i­men­tal treat­ment, the aw­ful in­ge­nu­ity of her glioblas­toma’s attack on her. We un­der­stood it was a fight my wife was nearly cer­tain to lose.

Yet we knew how much her life, our daugh­ter’s life, all our lives de­pended on science. With­out it, our daugh­ter would be a shadow of her­self, if she were here at all. With­out it, my wife’s fi­nal year would have shrunk to days. She ran two 5K races while be­set with cancer’s symp­toms, and won them both. She in­spired count­less peo­ple with nearly unimag­in­able strength and com­pas­sion, but she could not have writ­ten that ex­tra­or­di­nary last chap­ter with­out the years of sci­en­tific re­search be­hind her treat­ments.

Science sur­rounds us ev­ery mo­ment of ev­ery day. It’s in the relief of a child’s abat­ing fever, in the joy of a sum­mer wa­ter­slide, in the food we eat, the cars we drive and the air we breathe. It sus­tains us, trans­ports us, pro­tects us. Science is an al­loy of heart and mind, fac­tual and per­sonal all at once.

But that al­loy is weak­en­ing. Some of the blame rests on sci­en­tists them­selves, for too of­ten we don’t en­gage enough with the world we seek to im­prove. My wife’s on­col­o­gist be­gan ev­ery meet­ing with us with a bear hug, a ques­tion about our daugh­ter, a story about life. He in­vested in the en­dur­ing glue of build­ing re­la­tion­ships with those he served. I wish more sci­en­tists would heed his ex­am­ple. For while our lives rest upon an in­fra­struc­ture of facts, it is the heart that will de­ter­mine whether so­ci­ety keeps its re­la­tion­ship with science strong or lets it slowly erode.

That ero­sion is un­der­way. It’s no ac­ci­dent that many in last week­end’s marches donned white lab coats or car­ried signs de­fend­ing science. Fed­eral sup­port for re­search has been flat for 16 years. The frac­tion of our bud­get devoted to science once led the world; at last count, we were barely hang­ing on to 10th place, and that was be­fore Pres­i­dent Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion. This ad­min­is­tra­tion is re­plete with peo­ple who have de­meaned the sci­en­tific process and ques­tioned the need for fed­eral sup­port.

Such at­tacks are metastatic. When cli­mate science is thrown un­der the bus, when life­sav­ing vac­cines are painted as dan­ger­ous, when science is chewed up in the ugly machi­na­tions of par­ti­san pol­i­tics and when the most ba­sic truths of our world are twisted and ig­nored, it weak­ens the en­tire in­fra­struc­ture and threat­ens so­ci­ety as a whole.

Our in­vest­ments in re­search have been so wildly suc­cess­ful that most peo­ple take science for granted in their daily lives. Un­til they need it. But you can’t just dial it up from nowhere. The treat­ments that bought my wife a year suf­fused with heart, that let my daugh­ter fo­cus more on mon­key bars than MRIs, were born from years of painstak­ing re­search and a few sur­prise dis­cov­er­ies that span mul­ti­ple sci­en­tific fields. That’s how science works. We don’t al­ways know where the an­swers will come from, but we do know they are far more fre­quent in a di­verse, trusted and well-sup­ported en­vi­ron­ment. Our coun­try built a peer­less sci­en­tific en­ter­prise from what was just a tiny piece of our na­tional spend­ing, an in­vest­ment with enor­mous re­turns. But of late, each bud­get hit and each par­ti­san attack punches a new hole in a sys­tem on which we all de­pend.

Next month, science will once more hold all my faith, hopes and fears, for my daugh­ter’s tu­mor is grow­ing again. As be­fore, I will sort through a moun­tain of data to de­cide which new treat­ment she will en­dure, know­ing all the while that science is not per­fect — that it can fail, that data don’t al­ways point to a clear choice. But with­out the science that pro­duced those data, there would be no hope. Our past com­mit­ment to sci­en­tific re­search opens up a world of pos­si­bil­ity for her, and for all of us, that our grand­par­ents could scarcely imag­ine.

Many years from now, when my daugh­ter’s hair is gray, may that still be true.

While our lives rest upon an in­fra­struc­ture of facts, it is the heart that will de­ter­mine whether so­ci­ety keeps its re­la­tion­ship with science strong.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.