“Man, science never stops!” This is what a student said to me the other day in class. It was a good-natured push back to me when I told her how she could add another layer to her investigation. She’s right. Science never stops. Though at times it seems that there are some that want to stop science.
I can understand objections to how science might be used. There’s plenty of examples where scientific discoveries were used to harm individuals, the ecosystem, social systems, etc. I’m not talking about the necessary role of oversight. It isn’t always enough to ask “can we?”, but we also need to ask “should we?”. That’s when the conversation needs to involve more than just the scientist. Oppenheimer said he felt he had blood on his hands for Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Truman’s response was “who the hell does he think he is, I decided to drop the damn thing.” I may have taken some creative license with the quote, but the point is the same. I don’t hold the scientists responsible who creating DDT for the environmental damage done. It was the decision to use it before we fully explored the risks. More troubling than the lack of foresight was the deliberate work of other scientists and corporation executives who then denied the evidence, and personally attacked Rachel Carson to discredit her work in revealing the true risk of the insecticide.
There is always a push and pull between those who want to push the scientific envelopes and those who fear what might be discovered and how it might be used. That can promote proper dialogue. But stopping research simply because it could lead to a deleterious effect, is expensive, or might just seem frivolous is dangerously short-sighted. A gecko was just discovered that can shed its scales when trapped by a predator. The first response when seeing a picture of this gecko that looks like a piece of raw chicken is quite naturally, “eeww.” Once the novelty of the discovery wears off, though, there is always someone who asks why we are spending (possibly federal grant money) to research geckos? As researchers have dug a little deeper they have discovered that this gecko, unlike all other reptiles that regenerate body parts after losing them, grows news scales back without any scar tissue left behind. The scales grow back good as new. Is it possible that the enzymes produced by whatever gene present in the gecko could lead to medicinal or therapeutic uses in humans? What if whatever allows for complete regeneration in this gecko could be adapted to a therapy to use with burn victims so that they can heal without scars?
The point is we don’t know….yet. If we only fund the safe science, the comfortable science, and the science we can readily see the human application in, and/or we also defund the science we don’t agree with politically, interferes with corporate profits, or simply seems frivolous, we risk entering back into a kind of dark ages.
Our history is filled with all kinds of accidental discoveries: microwave ovens, X-rays, saccharin, even Viagra. Our history is also filled with uncomfortable truths in science we like to avoid: bioaccumulation of insecticides, acid rain from coal burning, climate change.
Science never stops.