Have you ever known anyone that was irreplaceable in your life? They could have been someone that you never got to know closely or someone that you only met briefly or even someone that you never met, but the impact that they had on your life was huge.
Recently, I read an article from the Smithsonian about Carl Sagan. The article call him “irreplaceable”. I would say that the impact that his writings and works had on me, even though I never met him was considerable.
I remember (and when I have the time to, I will read it again) reading the book, The Demon Haunted World. In it Sagan, tries to describe the scientific method, the dangers of pseudoscience, and promoted the importance of rationalism. He recognized the danger of a world where rationalism failed. Looking at our political climate today, I fear that his justifications were correct. Here in the West, particularly given the political climate, there have been lots of attacks on science. Science is under attack because people do not like its findings. In other cases, special interests have a desire to manipulate public opinion.
Knowledge and critical thinking are society’s best defense against that, if not the only such defense. It is why having a well educated populace is so critical for prosperity.
Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a considerable decline in science research and funding. I think that there is a tendency for the public to see “Blue Skies research” as a waste, unless it leads to immediate benefit. Research sadly does not work like that. If you knew the results, it would not be Blue Skies research. Most of the private sector too does not do that much research. A huge part of the problem is that the private sector is under pressure to deliver on short-term profits at all costs, even often at the expense of greater long-term profits. In other cases, companies in low margin industries simply may not have the capital to do so. It probably is not a coincidence that a disproportionate amount of research comes from companies that are large, often have monopolies, and a stable source of revenue. People like Carl Sagan are very important for that gap, because they can communicate the value of research, of education, and of knowledge to society. They can emphasize the benefits that research has.
Certainly there are those who today follow in his footsteps in trying to popularize science today, including many of his immediate proteges. Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, and David Suzuki are examples of scientists who have worked to increase public awareness of science. However, it does seem like a collective malaise has settled on society. We seem to be indifferent as a society at times towards the decline in science. To be sure, I do not blame the science popularizers – I think that the problem is our outlook as a society and by “us”, I mean society as a whole. Neil deGrasse Tyson noted that politicians have rejected science because a large percentage of the voting base has rejected science. That is not a cheerful interview, by I think Tyson is absolutely right. Science and rationalism are not just topics, but ways of thinking about the world.
This will have terrible long term impacts. Earlier this year, MIT released a report, The Future Postponed, which discusses the impact of declining research spending and for the US, its rapid loss in competitiveness. Science as a percentage of total US government spending is at its lowest point since 1968 and this is leading to the risk that many technologies will never be realized. It is a lengthy report and I would encourage you to read it or at least skim it over. The thing that strikes me the most is the self-inflicted nature of the problems facing the United States especially. We non-Americans though should not be too smug either. There has been inadequate investment in research elsewhere as well.
Even in the short term, this will have an impact. This has also had huge impacts on the employment prospects for those who major in science. Conventional wisdom says that the STEM majors are the future and typically the media portrays STEM as a solid source of employment. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. People have been forced to leave science because of the poor job prospects and that could impact society for decades to come.
While I do not believe that people like Carl Sagan or any of his successors can alone reverse the dangerous trends that I have described, I think that their impact is huge, and often unacknowledged. Certainly there is the fact that with better communication about the benefits to society, society would be more willing to invest in science. However, another area is the indirect benefits. How many people were inspired to go into science because of massive projects such as the Lunar Landings or because they saw people such as Carl Sagan? The Moon missions arguably helped inspire a generation.
Frankly at this point, science needs all of the help it can get. I just hope that someday, we will see more Carl Sagans, to not just inspire future generations, but to learn from our mistakes.