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Jane Ahlin, Published October 08 2011

Ahlin: We love go-go technology, but yawn at good science

With the death of Steve Jobs about the same time the names of this year’s Nobel Prize recipients in the sciences were announced, America’s contradictory attitudes toward technology and science came into focus. We so honor – idolize, really – technological innovation and the entrepreneurs who bring it to us and yet are so indifferent toward science and scientists whose research and hard work make innovation possible. Why is it technology excites us but science puts us to sleep – as if techno-geniuses are rock stars but scientists are dudes playing elevator music?

It’s tempting to blame current attitudes toward science and scientists on the political power of social conservatives who view science as threatening to their religious beliefs. Particularly when the subject is evolution, climate change, vaccines or stem cell research, social conservatives object, denouncing research findings and questioning the morality of the scientists who report them.

Still, social conservatives are only part of the problem. Despite being obsessed with technology and the latest (fastest!) gadgets, science no longer electrifies Americans and hasn’t for quite some time. Social conservatives couldn’t hold sway if the rest of the citizenry didn’t yawn and switch the channel every time they hear the word “science.”

Our national attitude used to be different. After the Soviet Union put Sputnik into orbit in 1957, science became America’s priority, and with the ensuing race to “put a man on the moon,” that emphasis only increased. The entire population shared understanding that a national commitment to science was a commitment for the long haul. Our best and brightest would be scientists who would keep us at the forefront of discovery and progress. Forever. Amen.

America isn’t good at “long haul” anymore. Our public attention span has decreased while our expectations for immediate results have increased. Steve Jobs did well in that new reality. He was a visionary/innovator, an extraordinary human being who gave us giant leaps in personal technology, made industrial design attractive, and did it all at a fast pace. Certainly, what he did couldn’t be done without scientific advancements, but he wasn’t a scientist.

Maybe we revere techno-geniuses, such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, because we like to think there’s something quintessentially American about college dropouts who change the world and become obscenely wealthy doing so. Maybe we yawn at research scientists, such as this year’s Nobel Prize winners, because they plod along for a lifetime of work – much like us – without recognition outside their peers.

Consider this year’s Nobel Laureate in chemistry, Daniel Schectman, an Israeli scientist who has done much of his work in the U.S., including his discovery of “quasicrystals” way back in 1982 – a discovery that “eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter.”

Because his discovery was so out of the norm, he was mocked and even forced out of his research group. That he gets the last laugh with the Nobel Prize almost 30 years later doesn’t change the hard times he went through before the larger scientific community accepted his discovery.

Then there’s Ralph Steinman, recipient of the Nobel Prize for medicine who died three days before his prize was announced. (Nobel Prizes aren’t given posthumously, but the committee didn’t know he’d died.) Steinman discovered the role of the “dendritic cells” in “adaptive immunity,” cells able to “arm the immune system against incoming pathogens.” Having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago, Steinman used himself as a guinea pig for his research, although at this point, no one knows whether that extended his life.

Jobs also died of pancreatic cancer. If he’d been diagnosed 10 years from now, Steinman’s discovery might have been refined enough to cure him. In fact, with funding, patience and good scientists taking up the work, chances are many lives will be saved.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email janeahlin@yahoo.com.