A world without science


How many times a day do you rely on research done by scientists? When you check the weather, talk to the pharmacist about the insulin that your mom needs, look at the label of the fertilizer or pesticide you are considering using on your home garden or being advised of the threat of a hurricane or a local outbreak of dengue fever.

You rely on people daily for your most important technical information who have spent on average of 11 years in college studying in great depth a specific topic to gain the expertise and knowledge to make the discoveries and develop the technologies that: deal with oil spills, air and water pollution; eradicated smallpox; significantly increased cancer survival; identified treatments for depression and heart disease; discovered stem-cell treatments for spinal injuries; and are currently working on the rat lungworm problem in Hawaii.

But what if all the scientists said — OK, forget it, we won’t do it anymore. You guys figure out what to do about global warming, cancer, autism, feeding the world, etc., and when you go to Google the answers to your questions that we are no longer going to provide, just remember that all the answers you get will be from people who have not done the work to really learn and understand what is happening. It will all be the fear-based, biased information that you get most of the time you just Google anything without a deeper understanding of what you are looking for. We quit!

How far do you think we would get? Who do you want to decide what drug is safe for your child or if your water has been safely purified or what regulations are needed to protect our air and environment?

I was raised in the ’60s and ’70s, times shaped by the Vietnam War, the civil rights and the women’s movements and rock ‘n’ roll. This was a time when we were awed by science and technology and all it was bringing to this world and beyond to outer space. It was in that era, with a love for science and a sense of purpose, that I set out to study biology to look for alternatives to all the chemicals we were dumping into our soil, water and air and with hopes of joining the Peace Corps to help people struggling to feed themselves.

Here I am 30 years later, with a Ph.D. in plant genetics, defending peer-reviewed science on genetically modified organisms on a regular basis and listening to the overwhelming evidence on global warming, the efficacy of vaccines and evolution being debated by politicians, lawyers and pretty much anyone with an internet service. It seems that scientists are now the scapegoats for all that is wrong with our food, environment, health and economy. Surely we all must be making money on this?

As a professor for the University of Hawaii for the last 20 years, I know that it is getting more and more difficult to find students willing to put in the effort it takes to obtain degrees in chemistry, biology, physics and related fields. Many of them watch their peers go through programs requiring far less work and time with bigger rewards when they leave. On top of this, they see society not offering any of the respect once afforded to those who have sacrificed so much of their own lives to work on the problems facing the world. They see a path of working long hours as graduate students and then post docs for low pay rewarded by distrust and fewer jobs due to a reduction in government funding and little support from society.

For most of us who have entered into the world of science, it was never about the money or the rare chance at notoriety, it was about finding the truth, discovering what was once unknown and giving back. In this world where anyone can publish anything in the name of free speech and a free market, we might just end up with no one willing to seek and speak the truth for fear of being blamed for its existence.

If you follow the money, I think you will see that many of those with the loudest voices against science are the ones making a living off of disputing it. The Science March is at 9 a.m. Saturday at the University of Hawaii Maui College. Please march with us.

* Sally V. Irwin has been a professor of biology, genetics and microbiology at University of Hawaii Maui College since 1996. She has a Ph.D. in genetics and is researching the human gut microbiome. In addition, she is an adjunct professor with the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine.