Saturday, January 18, 2014

Science Saturday: "What scientific idea is ready for retirement?"

The Edge Foundation asks a question of the science community every year; this year the question is, "What scientific idea is ready for retirement?" There are some really fantastic answers. In particular, I like the responses from Nina Jablonski ("Race."), Martin Rees ("We'll never hit barriers to scientific understanding."), Fiery Cushman ("Big effects have big explanations."), David Berreby ("People are sheep."), Dean Ornish ("Large randomized controlled trials.") and Laurie R. Santos & Tamar Gendler ("Knowing is half the battle."), but there are too many for me to list them all here. The link is worth reading (or bookmarking for reading when you have a minute). I wanted to highlight one from Kate Clancy over at Scientific American:

Last year, I spearheaded a survey and interview research project on the experiences of scientists at field sites. Over sixty percent of the respondents had been sexually harassed, and twenty percent had been sexually assaulted. Sexual predation was only the beginning of what I and my colleagues uncovered: study respondents reported psychological and physical abuses, like being forced to work late into the day without being told when they could head back to camp, not being allowed to urinate, verbal threats and bullying, and being denied food. The majority of perpetrators are fellow scientists senior to the target of abuse, the target themselves usually a female graduate student...

When the payoff is millions of dollars of research money, New York Times coverage, Nobel Prizes or even just tenure, we often seem willing to pay any price for scientific discovery and innovation. This is exactly the idea that needs to be retired—that science should be privileged over scientists.
Of course, part of the problem in what could be described as typical (though not systemic) abuse is scarce resources. When federal grant money dries up and the private sector is only interested in "profitable" research, the scientific community is bound to turn into some version of The Hunger Games. (The Funding Games?)

What more funding wouldn't stop is the historically and perpetually chilly atmosphere women in science often face—prejudice, assumptions, or just plain bad habits exist irrelevant of money. Still, it would be a nice first step.

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