A world of de­nial

No­belist la­ments loss of pub­lic trust in sci­ence

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Rachael.pells@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

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.”

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