Research carries unprecedented validity and authority in today’s rapidly advancing society, where we are constantly looking for the next big breakthrough or some knowledge that is completely counterintuitive to our intuitions. Each week, we hear about how there is a new treatment for a previously incurable disease or how we are at the brink of deciphering the mysteries of the brain. With a growing discrepancy between what is being told and what is actually the case, the public, understandably, has been disillusioned about research in various topics.
Before working in labs, I too was culpable for creating hype. After years of perpetual reinforced learning at school of how scientists’ research always yield new discoveries, I categorized the scientists into two groups. Those who made the discoveries were doing research right, while those who produced results that later turned out to be false were swindlers.
Because we are used to the fast-paced market, many of us expect the same of science. When processes take long or when the results do not meet the promise, we start losing faith in scientists due to the increasing disconnect in scientific process.
While many scientists have done a fine job of communicating science, there still remains a lot to do to elucidate the scientific process in research to the public. There are reasons for this obscurity, such as the need for scientists to hide negative implications and receive funding, or the way we give so much credit to a few select journals that exclusively seek novel findings.
Despite the imperfect nature of the current research system, one thing that the public must understand is that research is a truth-seeking process in the realm of the unknown, so it is inevitable that we will oftentimes fail. Even though such external pressures have arguably affected what science is about, researchers’ goals are always to extend the edge of knowledge. Sometimes, the trial and error process can spark controversy.
You may ask why researchers experiment in controversial realms. Why develop genetically modified organisms, research with stem cells, and now try to mess with human DNA?
This is because as scientists, we believe that there are alternatives that could lead to more efficient, affordable and reliable solutions than those we have today. The process of finding answers to questions never before asked is a lengthy process in which we go through extensive review and validate the works of others.
For instance, I am sure you all have heard about the Mozart Effect, where listening to classical music was inferred to lead to improvement in intelligence. After this concept was published in Nature, one of the most influential scientific journals, many people took it as truth, only to see years later that the performance enhancement only had a temporary effect. It was not necessarily classical music that improved performance, but rather the way music stimulated the body and the brain. However, this finding led to more research trying to find the link between music and the brain, such as the music therapy for stroke patients to recover from previously incurable states, which may not have been possible had we given up on researching more about the influence of music after the Mozart Effect was proven wrong.
The other reason to pursue new possibilities stems from social inequality that has stayed with us for so long. Before, we were at the mercies of the limited knowledge of the way nature worked. With advancements in science, research has given us cures to previously incurable diseases. However, some are simply too expensive like the Epipen, which has seen a surge in pricing. If we could disrupt that market through research, we could help reduce the financial burden amongst people born with different biological profiles, provide for better measures to accurately diagnose health issues that may limit one’s potential, and find an affordable cure for every disease out there, so that health becomes a guaranteed right.
This is where the essence of research lies. Research is, while capable of identifying new, cheaper and better solutions through a series of trial and error, fundamentally a truth seeking process. We study and base our research projects on countless research articles to reduce the chance of error and successfully identify a replicable pattern in nature.
Hence, as researchers, we are likely to make some poor decisions or try to experiment within controversial realms that we know are going to be under the scrutiny of the public. My plea is that we work towards rebuilding trust between the scientists and the general public through clear communication.
Researchers are professional questioners, not magicians. We are bound to make mistakes and some of our hypotheses may be proven wrong by future discoveries, as research in science requires us to try experiments that have no precedence.
Before the involvement of mass media in the sciences, each failure was perceived as a valuable experience for the scientists to learn from, as that led to asking new questions and experimenting until they finally found their solution. However, with the new hype of the media surrounding each discovery and setting a high expectation for science, the research atmosphere has become more challenging than ever. This is why we need the educated public to have the means to scrutinize claims made by the media. Works towards mutual understanding are necessary, which is the direction Tufts Breakthrough hopes to head.
To summarize, I want to ask you all to join us in our pursuit to educate people about research. Policies on research today have way too great of social and economical implications to ignore. This means that we will have to work together across disciplines, which is why the Tufts Lecture Series this year will host Tufts Professors from both the sciences and humanities to talk about their research. If we successfully create a society where research can be critically assessed by the informed public, so that we take necessary actions as citizens, many potential advancements that could save numerous lives may just be around the horizon.