Scientific inquiry stands as the basis of so many advances in our society that it seems inconceivable to question the return on investment in science.
On April 22, I walked with a group of students from our Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences campus to the New York State Capitol for the Albany March for Science. As we walked, I worried that there would be a poor turnout and that the students would be disappointed. My fears rapidly dissipated when we arrived on the West Capitol Lawn and were greeted by a large enthusiastic crowd, many waving signs and others staffing tables promoting science and other causes. It had a friendly, carnival-like atmosphere.
That science is a public good and has contributed greatly to human progress is indisputable. Scientific inquiry stands as the basis of so many advances in our society that it seems inconceivable to question the return on investment in science. The various speakers at the Albany event forcefully drove home this point by highlighting the many products of science - medicines, high technology, economic stimulus, etc. But as a scientist myself, what struck me most was how few of the event speakers actually talked about the process of science.
The process of science has been so enduring in human civilization and is arguably one of the most human of activities. This process is about creating a testable hypothesis, collecting data free of error or confounding influences, and establishing the validity of the hypothesis. Hypotheses lead to theories, which create paradigms on how the world works. When data arise that refute the paradigm, the time has come as the science philosopher Thomas Kuhn would say for a “scientific revolution.” New theories are generated that are consistent with all the data and a new paradigm is established. Science provides a sometimes imposing formal structure that is nevertheless changeable by evidence.
This is how science progresses. It is an elegant approach for the creation of knowledge and the incorporation of this knowledge into a predictive model of the world. The practice of science is — or should be – largely impervious to political belief, ideology, and other personal bias. The scientific method is one of the great achievements of the human intellect.
In this era, there is much talk about the importance of data-driven decision making, and that is especially true for pharmacists and those working in the pharmaceutical industry. These professionals must be skeptical and analytical about the data that they use to make everyday decisions — particularly when those decisions have a direct impact human health. Data-driven decision making is one of the key applications of the scientific method, and we need to educate future graduates to be skilled in it.
There are many problems with the decline in public support for the scientific enterprise and these have been widely stated throughout the media. Let me add one more. If the scientific enterprise is not respected, pharmacy students as well as those across other disciplines will hear this message. They may well grow up without the appreciation or even knowledge of the scientific method. They won’t understand the importance of “clean data” or of hypothesis testing or the development of a conceptual framework that allows them to draw generalizations from specific examples. They also will not learn how to be data-driven decision makers, and the resulting consequences could have a far reaching impact on pharmacy, pharmaceutical science, and the overall quality of care in the United States.
Greg Dewey, PhD, is the President of Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.