College of Sciences Dean Paul Goldbart on Why We Can’t Put Science on Hold

In an era of “fake news” and so-called alternative facts, a scientific approach can help society find out the truth about a lot of issues, not just those that involve equations, microscopes, and laboratories.

That’s according to Paul M. Goldbart, dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Sciences and Betsy Middleton and John Clark Sutherland Chair. “Scientific training is precisely what we need nowadays,” Goldbart says. “It gives you the tools to look at aspects of public policy – aspects of society in general – and just get a feel, some kind of qualitative feel for what’s actually going on, and what would happen if we made changes.”

Goldbart was reflecting on the forthcoming March for Science, set for Saturday, April 22, 2017, across the country. March for Science Atlanta will begin at noon in Candler Park with speeches from researchers and activists.

The march is in response to what March for Science Atlanta says are new federal policies that “threaten to further restrict scientists’ ability to research and communicate their findings. We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely. Staying silent is a luxury that we can no longer afford. We must stand together and support science.”

Those new policies could threaten progress made in certain areas of research such as regenerative medicine, which is focused on new treatments for severe spinal cord injuries. “This part of science hinges on so many others. It’s not just biology,” Goldbart says. “It’s something that builds on mathematics and chemistry and physics and computation as well, to create this web of power that all focuses down on the problem on hand and enables progress to be made. So it isn’t just one piece of science at a time. It’s the whole web of science working together to drive science forward.”

You can listen to the interview with Goldbart here, or read the transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT:

I’m Renay San Miguel with Georgia Tech’s College of Sciences. Joining me now is Paul Goldbart. He is the dean and Sutherland Chair in Georgia Tech’s College of Sciences.

Dean Goldbart, thanks for joining us today

Goldbart:

Happy to be with you, Renay.

San Miguel:

We are talking about the March for Science scheduled for April 22, 2017. More than 150 organizations are set to march at various locations all across the country. Why should we stand up and march for science? What are your thoughts on that?

Goldbart:

Well, science really has been this tremendous guiding light ever since the Enlightenment. For the past 300 years or so, science has really been this powerful framework – this set of tools – that has enabled us to create new knowledge, new capabilities, and really drive society forward.

That’s where we get clean water from. That’s why we have a secure food supply. That’s why we have robust houses and great weather forecasting. That’s why we have so many of the materials that make our lives more comfortable and richer.

And so science is really the whole suite of undergirding principles and methods that has got us to where we are today.

San Miguel:

And when we’ve talked about the impact of science on things like public policy – you and I have chatted about this – you believe you really can’t put science on hold. What do you mean by that?

Goldbart:

What I mean is when we think of science, there really is this remarkable international community spread out over the globe, spread out in space, all interacting. It’s not just one piece of science moving forward and another moving forward, one here and one there. It really is a whole community, and that community reaches out in space, but it also reaches out backward and forward in time, connecting the past to the future.

And it’s this community of scientists, the advisers who are teaching the next generation of students, and those students who become experts and teach the next generation of students. It’s that handshaking from one generation to the next that provides science with its strength and continuity and capability.

Let me use an analogy, Renay. Let’s think about classical piano. Let’s suppose we kept the pianos, but all the piano players are gone, and we just had books of music and books about piano playing. We would have a devil of a time trying to reconstruct the quality of performance in classic piano.

And so it is with science. So much is written down, and that’s quite remarkable and wonderful. But it’s also what gets handed on by word of mouth and by just showing and by standing side by side at the lab bench. So much of that is what really empowers science.

San Miguel:

That community is working on so many different areas of research and study in science, but are there any areas in particular that you feel would be in real jeopardy if indeed science was put on hold?

Goldbart:

There are. There are many, but let me just choose one. That’s the area of regenerative medicine. This is the area of medicine that is really creating the knowledge that will enable us to work with dreadful injuries such as spinal cord injuries, and figure out how we can create remedies that really enable people to recover their way of life.

This part of science hinges on so many others. It’s not just a piece of biology. It’s something that builds on mathematics and chemistry and physics and computation as well, to create this web of power that all focuses down on the problem on hand and enables progress to be made.

So it isn’t just one piece of science at a time. It’s the whole web of science working together to drive science forward.

San Miguel:

And science isn’t just what goes on in a lab somewhere with some researcher wearing a long coat There’s all kinds of evidence-based thinking impacting a lot of different parts of our lives, including public policy. How can science help with things like fake news and media literacy and other areas that we’ve been talking a lot about lately?

Goldbart:

That’s a very interesting question, one that I’m thinking about a lot these days. What an education and experience in science do together is give you the power to look at problems and just get a sense of whether or not what’s being claimed or what’s being said is even plausible at all.

So you may think of scientists as people who sit down and solve complex equations all day, and in fact we do that to some degree. But before we even approach equations, what we do is think and sketch and make estimates and get a feel for what’s actually going on.

So I think in many respects, the scientific training is precisely what we need nowadays. It gives you the tools to look at aspects of public policy, aspects of engineering, aspects of society in general, and just get a feel – some kind of qualitative feel – for what’s actually going on, and what would happen if we made changes.

So in that way I think science is tremendously empowering. The very same way of thinking – the same way of feeling that has enabled us to drive science forward – I think, can be applied much more generally, to help us be much more qualitative reasoners to drive society forward.

San Miguel:

Paul Goldbart is the dean and Sutherland Chair in Georgia Tech’s College of Sciences. Thank you for being with us today.

Goldbart:

Thank you, Renay.