Zerhouni on the Role of Science in Society

January 16, 2008

The NIH Director, Elias Zerhouni has a newsletter out which advances several arguments for the importance of science education. YHN may be occasionally guilty of taking the Great Zerhouni to task for some of his choices and directions as director and some of you may have a critical cant on anything he has to say. Well, this had some gems. If nothing else, it is a good rehearsal for your own thoughts on the importance of science.

There are a number of good points so I’ll just hit the highlights:

Our best hope for making a broad impact on the children of this nation would be to have a grassroots movement of scientists across the country, rallying for improved science education in their own communities.

Which I keep meaning to address in terms of scientific outreach on the local and personal level. All well and good to send letters to Congress bitching about the NIH funding. The question is, however, what are you doing to get your friends and neighbors to understand the importance of NIH funding? It starts with establishing the importance of the science.

Economists have estimated that as much as half of the post-World War II growth in GDP in the U.S. is attributable to technological progress that resulted from research and development.

Yeah, yeah. The typical way we need to talk to hook the “business” culture, which is a huge political hurdle. It’s the mindset. And we need to speak to it, distasteful as it may be.

A rigorous education in math and science can help prepare all students for good jobs, even those who will never wear a white lab coat.

Exactly. Should be a constant theme of anyone advancing science-as-an-endeavor. Better living through SCIENCE!

Children who learn about health and the science that underpins it will be better equipped to make smart choices—about diets and exercise, about smoking and drugs, and about choosing lifestyles that will help keep them mentally and physically fit.

Um, wow. He’s choosing examples that may not be the most traditional successes of science-for-healthcare. Talking drug abuse and diet/obesity. Shifting behavior through communication of the science! Damn, is he reading Drugmonkey?

We are working on this with our sister agencies in HHS and will be announcing some bold, new initiatives soon

I smell grant money. Perhaps this is where we parent-scientists need to get off our asses and partner with the local elementary schools. Yes, even if this outreach and education type of effort is not a usual part of our careers. (There are people who focus on this stuff.)

To many laypeople, science and technology are essentially one and the same. Many don’t understand that science isn’t about the high-tech devices we use or even what we choose to study. It is a way of knowing. It is a method of making sense of our world and of our universe. [Ed-emphasis added]

I don’t happen to live in a science-denial location but our national politics is affected by these themes. What are you doing about it?

All and all a pleasantly surprising communique from the Great Zerhouni.

9 Responses to “Zerhouni on the Role of Science in Society”

  1. PhysioProf Says:

    “And we need to speak to it, distasteful as it may be.”

    If basic scientists can tell study sections that their research is going to “lead to cures”, then it shouldn’t be that much of a stretch to tell the general public that it is going to “improve the economy”.


  2. CC Says:

    Um, wow. He’s choosing examples that may not be the most traditional successes of science-for-healthcare. Talking drug abuse and diet/obesity. Shifting behavior through communication of the science! Damn, is he reading Drugmonkey?

    I’m confused — I was going to agree that nutrition/health isn’t exactly a shining success of science, but then you go and cheer him on!

    Unless the “smart choices” involve realizing that the conventional wisdom on that subject is a blend of fashion, herd mentality, class bias and marketing, that’s presented as settled fact, I don’t see how an honest, critical evaluation of the field is going to produce a result he desires.

    Incidentally, while trying to figure out what the hell that graph means, I read the report. My impression is that the test involves a sort of question that isn’t common in American education*, and that much of the difference in countries is based on difference in experience with such constructions. (Anyone who has taken the GRE understands how that works. “Akiko, Boris, Cho-yeun, Deshondra and Eduardo each have a car of a different color…”) Theoretically, scientists might evaluate the study a little more closely before making sweeping changes based on “OMG, it’s a graph!”

    I think it’s an excellent sort of question, and should be used much more, but that’s not the point at hand.


  3. CC Says:

    Here’s a simple example: what should I be spreading on my toast in the morning? I used to use butter, and then switched to I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter because Science! said the cholesterol was bad. Now Science! says the trans fats are even worse. How about homemade jam? Or peanut butter? Oh, and also I don’t like to support the destruction of menhaden populations for fish oil, so the non-butter, trans-free options are mostly out. (I’d rather live a shorter life with well-fed stripers in the ocean than vice versa.)

    I’ve posed this question at work, stumped dozens of PhDs and MDs, and finally switched to oatmeal. So, what exactly are we going to teach the kids?


  4. PhysioProf Says:

    “So, what exactly are we going to teach the kids?”

    Eat food that is not made in a factory. Done.


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    CC, you are underlining the point for me. The reason I noted this is exactly because this is where the science->policy translation gets sticky. It IS hard to get simple answers from “science” sometimes. I’m surprised a good political operator like GZ would get into this instead of referring to some easy case.

    This is precisely why good education in what “science” is and is not is essential. To emphasize the fact that each big-splash media hit (blueberries? I mean seriously, blueberries?) does not mean we need wholesale alterations. That some, say, diets may work for some people but be verging on lethal for others.

    and what’s wrong with oatmeal instead of buttered toast, anyway?


  6. Government Bureaucrat Says:


    That graph is from the 2003 PISA problem solving study. PISA tries to assess how well 15 year-olds can apply what they have learned (whether at school, home, etc.) in real life situations that one might encounter in the workplace. This in contrast to the “curricular competency” that the other major international exam (TIMSS) assesses.

    FYI: The USA scores about the same in 2006 PISA math and science study (a little better in science, a little worse in math) as they did in the problem solving study


  7. bikemonkey Says:

    While these sorts of metrics are the bread and butter of national policy hysteria (“OOOH, we’re falling behind the [insert borderline insulting reference to population we think we should be ahead of]!”), the really miss the point. Don’t they? Isn’t it far, far more important that the entire voting (and polling) public be scientifically literate? As opposed to proficient at one time slice during secondary school?


  8. Govt. Bureaucrat Says:

    I do not think that they “miss the point”. This is a very, very important time slice.

    This exam was given to 15 year olds. 50% or so of these kids are a couple years away from the end of their formal schooling. The large majority of this group has received most of the science and math training that they will ever get.

    Very few of the kids not “science literate” at this point will ever attain that in their future.


  9. bikemonkey Says:

    “Very few of the kids not “science literate” at this point will ever attain that in their future.”

    A bit defeatist that! Ever heard of life-long learning? Not to mention the ease with which people are now informing themselves on the Internet? Try scienceblogs.com if you haven’t seen that already or click on some of the science related categories here at WP!

    Look I’m not saying it isn’t relevant to have some consistent metrics across time. It’s just that having a single metric like this lends itself to trite policy decision making and some facile “solutions” every time it catches political wind.


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