These Big Thinkers Want You To Know How They Feel About Science

Astronaut Scott Kelly talks about his year in space at 3M’s campus in Minneapolis on April 25, 2018.Alejandro Rojas

In April 2018, the Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative and 3M hosted the lecture, Climate Change: Science and Policy with Dr. Mario Molina. Molina won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his scientific discovery of the chemistry of the stratospheric ozone layer and its susceptibility to human-made activities.

He co-authored research in 1974 in Nature magazine on the threat to the ozone layer from chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gasses being used in spray cans. Molina has also served on the United States President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology from 1994 to 2000 and again in 2010-2016.

“Science doesn’t tell you what to do. Science isn’t either good or bad so you can not give Nobel prizes in science to good people, you do that in principle for the science,” said Molina.  “One of the new aspects of science is that we recognize our social responsibility. Many of us do not continue doing the same research we were doing before winning the prize (Nobel). After the prize, many of us do something for society.  I changed a bit as well, to more science and policy issues, and again, the bulk of these changes ended up being for the betterment of society.”

“So if somebody doubts climate change, that’s total misinformation. You can go to the extreme and say that’s really just corruption,” said Molina. “Science is so well established that it’s either you don’t want to understand something or that you have some hidden motives and that’s not science, who [..] would want to say nowadays that molecules don’t exist?” added Molina. 

Molina’s lecture coincided with a State of Science index put out by 3M which looked at a cross-section of views on the public’s perception of science today.

When it comes to kids and parent, 92 percent of parents said they want their kids to know more about science. But on the other hand, data from the report noted that four out of ten people said that if science didn’t exist their everyday lives wouldn’t be that different. Also, 60 percent of the science skeptics in the report believed if science didn’t exist, daily life wouldn’t be much different, and 66 percent of people in the world rarely think of the impact science has on their lives.

Scott Kelly, former NASA astronaut who spent 320 days in space and who spoke at the 3M Campus on April 26, 2018, tweeted the statistic that people believe science has little impact on their lives.

Scott Kelly on Flat Earthers, Climate Change and Mars

Astronaut Scott Kelly at the 3M State of Science event in Minneapolis, April 25, 2018.Alejandro Rojas

This bothers me because those 66 percent of people will go to the polls and vote and elect representatives in the United States or their countries and the people who they elect will make decisions that will affect their lives and their children’s lives. I think we need more members representing us that have science backgrounds and believe in science,” said Kelly.

“I [..] think that in the last 10 years, some people have become skeptics of things that are facts,” said Kelly. “Why that is, I don’t know, but we’ve lost our ability to have a conversation about it. If I am wrong, talk to me about it, try and convince me.”

“Some of that flat-earthers don’t fully believe the earth is flat and they’re doing it as a goof, and that’s fine,” quipped Kelly. “But the problem is that if you can discount that the earth is not a sphere, then you can’t believe in things that are important to us like issues with the environment, healthcare, vaccines, etc. On the one hand, you can laugh and say its funny, but on the other hand, it can have a huge influence on other people.”

“I’m not a climate scientist, but when 97% of the climate scientists say this is fact, I’m going to believe them, so it’s the logical thing to do to believe the experts,” said Kelly. “But when we have people in government who have no science background and say they aren’t going to believe, it confounds me how this is even possible,” said Kelly.

“From my time in space, I’ve noticed there are fewer rainforests and more field clearing in South America. I’ve seen icebergs with my naked eye in the middle of the southern Indian ocean as I am flying over and thought to myself, that’s a pretty big iceberg to be just floating around out there,” said Kelly. “The scary thing to me is how fragile our atmosphere is, when you see it, it’s like a thin film covering the earth, like a contact lens over your eyeball.”

In this July 12, 2015 photo, Astronaut Scott Kelly takes a picture of himself inside the Cupola, a special module of the International Space Station which provides a 360-degree viewing of the Earth and the station. In his new autobiography, the retired astronaut writes about his U.S. record-breaking year in space and the challenging life events that got him there. (Scott Kelly/NASA via AP)

Kelly adds that going to Mars is the next logical step for our species. “We have a lot of the technology to do that mission, over the course of the lifetime of the space station, we’ve learned a lot,” adds Kelly.

“I was in space for space for 320 days, I got back and didn’t feel great, but I was capable,” said Kelly. “But going to Mars will take 200 days, then you are on the surface for a year and operating in a lesser gravitational field, one third that of the earth, the physical effects on the body is going to be greater.”

When it comes to Mars versus the Moon, Kelly said he would prefer a long-term plan and the money to do it. “What we have now is a change in direction from where we are going and no money to do anything. We have a policy change with nothing to back it up. My desire for NASA is that they would be an agency that has the budget over a longer period and not be tied to each administration,” said Kelly.

“There are a lot of great reasons to go to the moon. We have a lot more science today than when we were there before, and there’s still a lot we can learn about the moon and earth and where we came from,” said Kelly. “But if you want to build the perfect place to practice to go to Mars and you wanted to demonstrate your technology, the Moon is the perfect place to do it. It’s expensive, but if you have an unlimited amount of money and if you only can do one thing, my choice is to go to Mars.”

Telling The Story Of Science

In 2017, National Geographic funded more than 600 grants totaling around $16 million for scientists and explorers. The also hired their first Chief Scientist, Jonathan Baillie.

Gary Knell, CEO, National Geographic, said that it’s essential to support scientists and explorers, like Jane Goodall, because their experiences and science becomes fodder for storytelling and shows the contextual connection of why science is important. “We’ve tried to double down over the past several years to make the grantmaking contribute to more practical applications, like the June 2018 plastics issue of National Geographic, which we hope will get people to own the problem,” adds Knell.

“For the past two years there seems to be a war on science,” said Knell. “Politically people seem to be choosing what science they want to believe in that fits their political views – climate change, GMO, etc.,” said Knell. “But science is a methodology and as Neil DeGrasse Tyson has said, ‘science is true whether you believe it or not ‘ so maybe it’s the applications that may or may not be good for mankind.”

The Discovery and Science Channels have also been working on programming that creates context around science in series like Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey To Tomorrow (debuts in October 2018), How the Universe Works and Rancher Farmer Fisherman.

The Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft is seen launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with Expedition 50 crewmembers NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy of Roscosmos, and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016, (Kazakh time) Whitson, Novitskiy, and Pesquet spent approximately six months on the orbital complex. This image is part of upcoming Discovery and Science Channel programming called Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey To Tomorrow which debuts October 2018. Image courtesy of Discovery.NASA/Bill Ingalls

Nancy Daniels, Chief Brand Officer, Discovery and Factual said that in an era when there is so much uncertainty, and facts aren’t thought to be as concrete as they once were, science-based programming can be reassuring.

“Whether we’re talking about how climate change has had real effects on the crab fishing industry, exploring the far reaches of the universe, or inspiring the next generation to learn more about science, Discovery and Science Channel are at the forefront of this movement in television back to authenticity. At the same time, we can’t be up on an ivory tower,” said Daniels. “We are storytellers, and good storytelling has the power to help synthesize complicated issues.”

Looking Forward

John P. BanovetzSenior Vice President, Research and Development and Chief Technology Officer, 3M said the world is becoming more technologically advanced, and science is driving those technology breakthroughs.

“You see it every day and read about science driving improvements in energy use, cleaner air and water, and transportation.  To continue these advancements in the future, we need to be vigilant about helping people understand all of the incredible innovations around science,” said Banovetz.  “Science is all about collaborating to solve the challenges we will face in the future.”

Jim Jefferies, 2018 IEEE President, and CEO said that much of the improvement in the quality of life over the last few decades is the result of advances in science and technology driven by electrical and electronic engineering and computer science. “These advances in electronics and computer science underpin the advances in healthcare, ubiquitous communications, clean and efficient energy, intelligent transportation, entertainment, education, advanced agriculture, financial technology, security, and space, and touch almost every aspect of life,” adds Jefferies.

“Today, we see an explosion of interest at the frontiers of machine learning and artificial intelligence, in robotics, in new models of computing for a post-Moore’s law world (including applications of quantum science), in intelligent vehicle technology, and in biomedical technology,” adds Jefferies. “We also see a vibrant discussion about ethics and design, driven by an increased focus on risk and responsibility in the development of intelligent systems.”

Molina offers some advice for inspiring scientists. 

“Take ambitious ideas, innovation [..] because it’s extremely rewarding. Persevere in your goals, and live with the fact that we all make mistakes. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and when you realize that, you change, and you learn from your mistakes,” said Molina. “So don’t give up, unless you want to have a very boring life and just function like a bureaucrat which isn’t very encouraging. Keep being ambitious.” 

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Correction: This post has been updated since it was originally published to add the link to Nature magazine from 1974 where Molina’s research was published.

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Joan Guzman