8th February 2013 Boston, USA

Suggesting New Solutions for "Making Science Work"

I’m a pretty reserved person most of the time, but I can get completely geeked out by celebrities.

There is something completely fascinating about the fact that so much of their lives are on display, and yet we really know so little about them. I often wonder what they are REALLY thinking and who they REALLY are underneath the public image.

On Wednesday night I learned what four major (scientific) celebrities are thinking about these days. Four of the biggest names in UK/US science gathered to share their thoughts on how to move scientific progress forward.

Sir Paul Nurse, President, Royal Society of London, and Director of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, Eric Lander, Co-Director, Broad Institute, and Professor of Biology at MIT, Charles Rosenberg, Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University, and Lisa Randall, Professor of Physics, Harvard University, gathered to talk about “Making Science Work” as part of Harvard’s Science and Democracy Series. Sir Paul gave an hour lecture on the challenges scientists face in making science work, followed by a panel discussion.

By Sir Paul’s definition, making science work for human benefit requires making good decisions about what scientific research should be supported and giving good scientific advice for public policy.

During his talk, Sir Paul revealed his strategy for overcoming some of the barriers to making this possible. He suggested that funding creative and innovative people, rather than well-written science proposals, will naturally lead to high-quality and collaborative science. He also said that it is scientists that hold the power to change how the public interprets scientific policy rather than politicians. In his view, getting a scientific message across well is accomplished by helping the public become accustomed to uncertainty; rather than waiting for their science to be completed before speaking out, scientists should get ahead of the story to help shape the public’s understanding before it can be interpreted by other influences (politics, interest groups, religions).

Though many of the obstacles Sir Paul pointed out have existed for some time, what struck me was how straightforward his thinking was. His answers weren’t that complicated, and many simply involved open communication. One of the key messages I took away from his talk is that making science work involves much more collaboration on the part of scientists – whether it be deciding what research to prioritize, or sharing results for the good of the community/public – and much less competitiveness.

The panelists and guests all seemed as wowed by Sir Paul as I was. Though they agreed with his perspective in many ways, each had their own unique view to share.

One of the key points related to US/UK relations was pointed out by Eric Lander. Lander remarked that many of Sir Paul’s guidelines for making science work were guided by strengths within UK culture that do not exist in the US. From his perspective, the US public has much more skepticism towards its government and the experts that it calls upon. This was reiterated again during the Q&A session with the audience, when Charles Rosenberg spoke of the ways in which scientists, clinicians, politicians all find different ways to frame current issues differently, concluding that science will work better when those perspectives find commonality.

Though making science work will always be a bit of a work in progress, finding avenues for open dialogue about our differences – whether they are differences in scientific priorities or differences in public opinion about scientific issues – is the true way forward towards building long-lasting UK/US scientific collaborations.

About Sarah Hokanson

Dr Sarah Hokanson joined the Science & Innovation team at the British Consulate General in Boston in January 2013 after finishing a NIH post-doctoral fellowship at Cornell University. Sarah has…

Dr Sarah Hokanson joined the Science & Innovation team at the British Consulate General in Boston in January 2013 after finishing a NIH post-doctoral fellowship at Cornell University. Sarah has a love for discovery, whether it be uncovering the answer to a scientific question or getting to the end of a very good book. Graduating with B.A. degrees in Chemistry and English from Boston University and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 2010. Sarah’s work focuses on identifying New England leaders in bioscience innovation and building connections between the New England and UK scientific and technical communities. When Sarah is not working to facilitate scientific collaborations, she is busy pursuing independent research questions such as, “Does cake flour really produce fluffier cupcakes?” (She has since found that cake flour makes a really big difference.) Sarah also helps to organize events for the Boston University alumni club.