I like to consider myself a man of science. While I have not made it my career to further the study of any particular field I champion those who do, as they provide so much benefit to humanity while asking so little in return. I guess this stems from my training as an engineer, which many people would call applied science. At the reception of my wedding one of my friends and fellow engineers Brett approached me and lamented that the days of the great scientists, who were at the time people of great power and wealth, had long since past. Now the great gentlemen of the world instead spend their riches on growing their riches rather than furthering science for the great of mankind. This then lead us to question why this was, and how it could be rectified.
I took the stance that these days hard science isn’t as attractive as it used to be. Modern day life has so many distractions that the incentive to achieve greatness by furthering a field of science is lost in the sea of noise that we flood our children with. When I was studying to become an engineer I was one of only a handful of new engineering students in an university of over 10,000 students and our lecturers told us on the first day that this was because engineering is now seen as being “too hard”. If the idea of just applying science in the real world is seen as too difficult by the new generation, what hope do the real scientists have?
I tried then to placate his worries by mentioning a couple powerful people with an interest in science: Richard Branson, Al Gore and so on. The problem was, as Brett pointed out, was that they were not specifically in it for the science, although their championing of these causes did lend them to investing in the areas. He’s right, we don’t see billionaires these days establishing research bodies purely for the intent of furthering our knowledge. I can’t say that I blame them though as how do you choose where to put your money? Richard Branson only signed up with Scale Composites after they made 2 successful flights into space, not 5 years before when they started their shot for the Ansari X-prize. It would seem that the scientists of yesteryear that were celebrated and rewarded the same as we reward our sporting stars today are now relegated to the shadows only to be brought into the spotlight when they make something we deem useful.
The Internet has done a lot to change that over the years. With many scientists able to publish papers directly to the world at large any breakthrough in scientific research is instantly reported on. However this is a double edged sword as breakthroughs are often then trumped up by the media and as such misrepresented. This has given the public the general idea that whenever there’s a breakthrough it’s always “10 years away” from practical use, tarnishing the reputation of the greater science community. The problem here is however, if people aren’t interested in what you’re doing you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose your funding unless you can produce something that is/will provide value in the short term. It would seem that the capitalist world that we have created which provides so much for us has turned on those who have made it possible for such a world to flourish.
The conversation ended with us both vowing to change this situation, as we know all the talk in the world won’t do it any good. Whilst my dreams are to selfishly throw myself into orbit I will do it whilst promoting the people who made it all possible. We men of science will not go quietly into the night, we will stand and shine brilliantly to inspire all of humanity to follow in our footsteps. We will persevere.