Science experts seen as ‘just another lobby group’

Researchers must ‘put on the gloves’ and bring the fight to their critics, says Arizona State professor

February 21, 2019
Bruce Professor Rittman, Regent’s professor of environmental engineering at Arizona State University

Scientists are viewed in some quarters as “just another lobby group”, and they need to be more pugnacious in answering critics who claim that they are motivated primarily by money, according to US sustainability expert Bruce Rittman.

Professor Rittman, regents’ professor of environmental engineering at Arizona State University, said that researchers were seen by some segments of the US public as a group of people who wanted to influence society for their own benefit – akin to the National Rifle Association, for example.

“Part of it is that people don’t really understand how science works – what you might call scientific illiteracy – but another thing is antagonism towards scientists as elites who are just trying to pad their own nest,” he told Times Higher Education.

“Most scientists are trying to do things that are going to lead to increased knowledge and solve really difficult problems for society. Very few scientists get rich. If we wanted to get rich, we’d do something besides science.

“I try to explain this to people. I don’t think they get it. I have no idea how to get around this perception of scientists just being out there to feather their own nests.”

Professor Rittman was speaking on the sidelines of THE’s Research Excellence Summit: Asia-Pacific at the University of New South Wales. He said the problem was connected with, but not necessarily a consequence of, the wider mistrust of expertise.

“I don’t know whether it’s worse than it was, but it’s bubbled up so that we can see it a lot more. Donald Trump has a base of supporters who really think this way – the world’s out to get them, [including] scientists.”

He said researchers were not “in a get-rich-fast business”, with even the relatively few scientists who prospered financially taking “for ever” to do so. But making that simple point did not settle arguments about scientists being focused on their own enrichment.

“It should, but I don’t think we actually make the point,” Professor Rittman said. “If you don’t even make the argument to people, they don’t have any reason to accept it.

“We’re not very good at promoting who we are. We talk to ourselves a lot. It’s a very inward-looking enterprise.”

Professor Rittman said that most researchers aspired to be leading lights in their narrow areas of expertise. “We publish our papers that only two people in the world can really understand,” he said.

“There’s nothing wrong with doing that – but if that’s all we do, we’re failing. We’re failing society, we’re failing our institutions, we’re failing research.”

He said that as well as amassing knowledge, scientists needed to address critics who were devaluing that knowledge. “That’s a weak point for us because we don’t do it. We don’t like to dirty our hands. But sometimes you have to get out there and put on the gloves a little bit.”

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