America has forgotten that it likes science. The National Science Foundation did not bankrupt America, nor did the EPA. Scientific discovery for its own sake is foundational to everything about America.
We need to remind ourselves that scientific exploration is American as all hell.
To teach us how to high the benefits of exploration without immediate material goals, I turned to an organization that epitomizes “impractical” science: The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
SETI scientists are not looking for a cancer cure or renewable energy sources. Searching for life beyond our planet is an ongoing project of discovery, says Dr. Seth Shostak, a senior SETI astronomer, “not a science experiment.” Its value is harder to quantify.
When I asked Shostak to try to quantify, he snorts and asks, “should we really map all the islands in the South Pacific? What do you think, Jim Cook? Should we do that? What the heck.” The question is silly to him because why would you not?
Accidental scientific breakthroughs pepper history: X-Rays, Velcro, microwaves, all invented or discovered by chance. We couldn’t imagine living without electronics today, yet electricity took over a century to go from a niche science to essential technology. In that time, countless scientists plowed on without recognition.
“Exploration is not some kind of superficial, unimportant endeavor for society,” Shostak insists. “You get a static society if you don’t look outwards. This is not something that is just nice to have. It’s essential.”
He waxes on about the moon landing, cell phone technology, medical breakthroughs by American scientists, things that happened by chance or through public will. He sounds like a schoolboy science wiz who wants nothing more than to look through a telescope and see his boyhood dreams come alive. That’s classic Americanness.
“You have the chance that you will [his emphasis] find something,” says Shostak. “If you find something, that would be extraordinary. Everybody would subscribe to that, I think.”
The problem is getting people to subscribe to scientific study without the benefit of hindsight. Here again, the key is rubbing our national ego. You won’t succeed politically unless you shout “America is the greatest country ever created” at least ten times per speech. You know what the greatest country ever created will do? Learn how to teleport people. Or regrow limbs. Or discover aliens. Climate deniers like Trump and Pruitt need to be reminded that stopping climate change is not a hippy concern but a chance for America to be the best.
At April’s March for Science, the scientific community expressed the disappointment and anger they felt at shortsighted politicians. It’s a good start but it’s not enough. We have to do more than express anger. We need to persuade our fellow Americans that scientific progress is necessary. In 1969 our country put a human on the moon because the public demanded it. The mission wasn’t driven by a call for moon rocks but a patriotic drive to beat the Communists in the space race.
We need to find a reason to drive the same kind of scientific progress today.