Distraction Free Reading

The Five Scientist Pledge: Who are the scientists in your neighborhood?

Three weeks ago, on August 15 and the eve of Australia’s annual National Science Week, Australia’s Chief Scientist issued a challenge: by the end of that week he wanted everyone to know the names of at least five living Australian scientists. This did not mean just Nobel laureates or the historically famous, but five living Australian university professors, corporate researchers, or postgraduates—anyone professionally involved in scientific R&D. The Australians were challenged to get to know the scientists living among them, to learn who were the scientists living in their neighborhoods.

Growing up in Wisconsin, the only bona-fide scientist I ever met as a child was an aging astronomer who had been recruited from nocturnal life to conduct visitor tours of Yerkes Observatory. Pale and phlegmatic, he was deeply passionate about celestial studies and our meeting would be influential in furthering my interest in astronomy. Strangely, I would not meet any more of these curious geniuses until college, where they then populating the various departments of biology, chemistry, geology, physics and the like. For my children, the story has been profoundly different. The theoretical physicist who lives in the house across the street, the nuclear chemist who lived on the corner, and the microbiologist living down the block are only a small portion of a larger population of scientists my kids have come to know as coaches, friend’s parents, and often diffident neighbors. Where science was at best a peripheral part of my youth, their Los Alamos childhoods were vested in the primacy of science as a central element and core value of life, owing much to the presence of the national laboratory that is the town’s raison d’être.

Bounded by these opposing realities, there are a range of experiences that each of us have likely had with scientists. Although I imagine the experiences of many lie closer to mine than my children’s, I hope for the reverse. And while it is nigh impossible (and perhaps not even desirable) for all of us to live and work in the daily company of scientists, I have no doubt that getting to know the scientists in our neighborhoods is good for us. This understanding, I think, was the sentiment behind Australia’s recent initiative to become more familiar with its scientists.

Portrait of Dr. Alan Finkel in a blue dress shirt and jacket facing the camera.

Dr. Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist (Photo courtesy Australian Office of the Chief Scientist).

The person issuing Australia’s Five Scientist Pledge was Alan Finkel, the current (and eighth) Chief Scientist, who took office in January of this year after having served as both the Chancellor of Monash University and President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE). As Chief Scientist, Finkel provides independent, high-level advice to the Prime Minister and others on matters relating to science, technology and innovation while simultaneously holding the position of Executive Officer of the Commonwealth Science Council, whose task it is to identify national challenges and opportunities for that can be addressed through science.

Although Australia spends roughly the same amount of government funding on science as most G20 nations, in the past few years government funding for science has been down by more than AUD$2 billion. Australia still spends roughly 2% of its GDP (AUD$10 billion) on scientific research and experimental development, which is slightly less than the U.S. in terms of GDP share, but it is also roughly the same amount as Apple spent on R&D in 2015.

Finkel actually knows a lot about Silicon Valley R&D spending. He started Axon Instruments in 1983, a California-based company that made precision scientific instruments for pharmaceutical research. Using that experience and profits from the 2004 sale of Axon, Finkel returned to Australia and founded Cosmos Magazine, an award-winning science news magazine. Finkel was also the architect of the Science and Technology Education Leveraging Relevance (STELR) program, a hands-on, inquiry-based science learning curriculum that has been adopted in by hundreds of Australian, New Zealand and Asian-Pacific region schools.

These experiences made Dr. Finkel an ideal person to urge Australians to get to know better the real people of science. And while there’s no word on how well the Australians actually did on the challenge, even before Science Week was over Finkel had issuing a list of 750 scientists to help them fulfill their pledges. Finkel’s “cheat sheet” listed senior scientists, mid-career researchers, and even PhD students, all compiled from social media suggestions that represented only a small sampling of Australia’s scientific talent.

So what, you may ask, does any of this mean for the anthropology of science, technology, and computing? To me Finkel’s challenge is an affirmation of the presence of science in everyday life, a validation of its elemental status in contemporary world culture, and an assurance that the people whose lives fascinate us are indeed worthy of ethnographic study. But perhaps the key takeaway here is that for science to succeed in times when government funding levels are falling even as environmental problems are growing, when schools are struggling to attract kids to science careers, and when science itself seems to be in danger of losing some of its once substantial cultural authority (Gauchat 2011), we need to get to know who our scientists are and what they do. Perhaps Australia’s challenge should be extended worldwide, so that citizens of all nations can seek out and know their unsung scientific talent.  We all need to know, who are the scientists in our neighborhoods?

1 Comment

  • Thank you, Todd – a great post. As you suggest, the Five Scientist Pledge began with Dr Finkel’s intuition that the best way into a complex reality is through a human story.

    We have no difficulty in thinking of Australia as a great sporting nation, because we are constantly presented with flesh-and-blood examples in all age groups, at all levels and right across the gamut of sporting fields.

    Science, and the people who pursue it, are less present in our lives – and to the extent that we do see them, the spotlight tends to shine on the Nobel Laureates or great heroes from the past.

    We do need to celebrate the best of the best, but we also need to understand science as an accessible and rewarding field that branches out in any number of directions. It is living, changing and exciting!

    Today the conversation around future jobs is frightening to many people. If we can’t think of science as a realistic path for ‘people like me’, then we won’t be reassured by talk of a coming wave of science-based jobs. As Dr Finkel says, scientists are designing our unpredictable future. And the more we know about them, the better off we’ll be.

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