The Holy Church of Science

I think it’s fair to say, science doesn’t have the best image. I asked a couple of friends what came to mind when they thought of scientists. Here are some of their comments:

“Bearded men with odd dress sense”
“No sense of humour”
“Boring and slightly bewildering to talk to”
“They work far away putting tiny drops of things into test-tubes”
“They wear anoraks”
“Socially awkward”
“Einstein”
“Geek”

Oh dear! If this is what people think of scientists no wonder the science community isn’t thriving with cross-sector collaboration! Scientists aren’t seen as the most attractive, approachable characters.
At the same time, science has a position of great authority in society. All you need is a label saying “scientifically proven” or “recognised by the scientific community” to gain the trust of consumers. Politicians, media, new age hippies and consumer companies alike refer to science for answers, authority and guidance. In fact, you could say that science has become the Church of the modern world.

Church

Once upon a time we looked to the Church for guidance. Now we look to science. As the guardians and high priests of this Holy Church of Science, scientists have the power to bestow blessings on products, ideas or beliefs.

Priest

Like Latin Mass in the Catholic Church – the utterings of scientists are mysterious and inexplicable.

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But what happened to the rebel roots of science? Hundreds of years ago science emerged as a rebellious challenger to the dominance of Religion and the Church. Gutsy rebel scientists like Galileo were imprisoned for making 'heretical' suggestions like the earth rotates around the sun.  Nowadays scientists like Richard Dawkins dismiss other belief systems with almost religious fervour. They behave like grumpy priests defending their authority.

If science is going to play its full part in society I reckon scientists need to step down from the Holy Church of Science and engage with other cultures and communities in a really open-minded and non-judgmental way. I don't mean to challenge the power and importance of science. In fact want to do the opposite. If scientists learn to communicate and tell stories about science, explain how it works and why it can be trusted, ask questions and share personal experiences they are much more likely to win people's hearts and imaginations.

The really exciting thing is that this is happening already. A couple of weeks ago we found out that the three most trusted people in New Zealand are all scientists – Ray Avery, Peter Gluckman and Paul Callaghan. They didn’t get there by hiding in the lab! All three of these inspiring men are warm, open-minded, courageous, socially engaged and brilliant at communicating. They are also inspiring a generation of young scientists to follow their example. I find this extremely encouraging! Perhaps the walls of the Church are finally crumbling…

Aim for the Highest

Aim for the highest! That was our motto at the high decile girls school I attended from age ten to seventeen. We were encouraged to do our very best in all our subjects - especially the academic ones.

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Of course, aiming for the highest really depends what you put at the top. Sometimes I got the feeling it was money.

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But our school had strong Christian values of hard work and service too. Somewhere, lingering in our collective subconscious, there was a pyramid of success to help us choose a direction in life. The really bright girls were encouraged to study law or medicine.

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My year group was clearly a bright bunch. At our final prize-giving the headmistress read out the names of each 7th former along with the career path we'd decided to pursue… "Law, Law, Law, Medicine, Law, Law…"

Out of sixty or so girls there were only a couple doing science or engineering.
I've only recently thought about the significance of this - what it means for our country. Lawyers and doctors are undoubtedly useful but they won't create a new economy or make NZ "The Place Talent Wants to Live" as NZr of the year Paul Callaghan has envisioned. They could be considered ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. In fact young lawyers and doctors can do better overseas in the UK, US or Oz where the salaries and opportunities are higher. As Paul Callaghan has urged we need more people following their creative passion - developing niche enterprises in the high-tech and creative industries.

So…What would the country look like if we updated the success pyramid?

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Wouldn't it be exciting if young Kiwis were encouraged to become innovators, creative entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists? That's a worthy challenge for the brightest young minds! To me, this is an inspiring thought. When I was at school I had so much passion, enthusiasm and idealism. I would have lapped up the opportunity to serve my country in a way that allowed my creativity to flourish.

I've always wanted to return to my school and give a speech on "Aiming for the Highest". This would be my new interpretation!