Former director of the Prineton Plasma Physics Laboratories, Rob Goldston, addressed the audience at the March for Science in Princeton. Below I’ve copy-pasted his speech on the merits of science for fundamental understanding of the word around us, to develop new applications and products, to support decision-making and to ensure safety and reliability of technology.
History shows that science has contributed mightily to the betterment of our lives. Think about surgery, even dentistry, in the early 19’th century, before anesthetics. Think about the epidemics of childhood diseases in the early 20’th century that took away so many young lives, and the antibiotics that eliminated these plagues. Think about the terror of polio in the mid 20’th century, and the discovery of the vaccines that just
wiped it out.
Think about the changes in our ability to travel and to communicate, from horses and sailing ships to railroads and steam ships, to bullet trains and jet aircraft. From the pony express to the telegraph to the telephone to a smartphone connected to the internet.
Think about our increasing understanding of the microscopic world, from the discovery of microbes, to the discovery of atoms, to nuclei and elementary particles. And look in the other direction – from Galileo’s understanding that the earth orbits the sun, to the discovery in the early 20’th century that our galaxy is just one amongst billions, to the discovery that the universe began in a “big bang,” and the recent mystery that the
universe is actually accelerating as it expands.
So if you are concerned about people in the prime of life being struck down by diseases that we don’t yet understand, then what should you want? …
If you would like to see more modern miracles – say, safe self-driving cars, or better privacy and yet more ability to hear others’ perspec4ves around the world, then you should want…
And if you wonder where we came from, and maybe where we are going, you should want…
Moving to a different topic, if we are going to make wise and objective choices in public policy, we need broad, objective scientific information. This means that agencies like the
Environmental Protection Agency must undertake the kinds of scientific studies needed to make wise policy choices, and must communicate the results of these studies to the public, so we can all participate in the decision-making. This also requires…
The Food and Drug Administration needs to require and evaluate tests to prove that new drugs are both safe and effective. We don’t want our friends and families diverted from
treatments that do work, to those that only make promises. This requires that the FDA and the drug companies do…
In my own experience, just recently, the Princeton Ridge Coalition fought like the dickens to make sure the interstate natural gas pipeline that ultimately went through our
neighborhood was installed safely. We found that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) didn’t have the scientific and engineering capabilities to help us with our fight. So we did it on our own. Other communities need…
science from PHMSA to support them.
Science does not and should not dictate the solutions to social problems. Science can tell us facts, including their uncertainties, but it does not provide the values that must guide decisions on what actions to take — except maybe the value of objective analysis and the humility to take careful ac4ons and check their consequences as we go along. What science can best provide is clear facts about what is going on and why, and, maybe humbly, some of the consequences of proposed policies.
For example, the climate is warming. This is a fact. The warming is largely due to human emissions of greenhouse gases. Also a fact. The impacts will be significant, but the social and financial costs of reducing emissions are also significant. These are the facts, and they need to be faced squarely, with clarity and purpose. Once we’ve faced them, our democratic society can haggle out the path forward. Even with the inevitable
uncertainties, we need to debate objectively, understanding the impacts on all of the stakeholders, including our coal miners and our grandchildren, and take prudent action. And where there are, inevitably, still questions about the impacts of warming and the most effective mitigation strategies, what do we need? …
So it is up to us, as citizens, to petition our government to support science for the progress it brings to our lives, and to petition our government to use science objectively to inform public policy. That is what we are all doing here today, and we should all feel proud that we are standing up to be heard.
Follow Rob on twitter for science and poltics at @RobGoldston .