Making a Whale of a Difference With Science

By Robert Kriss

Dr. Bridget Coughlin, the President and CEO of the Shedd Aquarium, is on a mission to inspire people to learn about science and support scientific endeavors.

On April 4, 2018, Dr Coughlin made a presentation at the Fortnightly Club in Chicago entitled:  Science is a Verb.  We Must Get Sciencing.  The World Requires It! [Watch video here on C2ST’s YouTube channel now]  The program was co-sponsored by the Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST) and the ARCS Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships to promising young scientists.  During the first part of the program, Dr. Coughlin provided a fascinating account of the Shedd’s mission, animals and logistical challenges.  After her “behind the scenes” tour of the Shedd, Dr. Coughlin brainstormed with attendees on how Science should market itself in this age of populism, “fake news” and social media.

First, a few facts about the Shedd.  John G. Shedd, the founder of the museum,  worked his way up from stock boy to president of Marshall Field & Company.  In 1924, he donated $2 million to begin construction of the museum.  One of his objectives was to broaden the horizons of Midwesterners by introducing them to exotic creatures from all over the world.  The museum opened on May 30, 1930.  Unfortunately, Mr. Shedd passed away in October 1926 and never saw his aquarium in action.  The first year the Shedd was opened it attracted 2 million visitors.

The museum is now home to more than 32,000 animals, not including human staff.  For years, the Shedd transported salt water to the museum by rail.  Today, it mixes tap water with an ocean salt mix to make its own sea water.  All sea water is not the same, though.  Concentrations of salt vary with the temperature of the water, and different aquatic regions have different bacteria and other materials in the water.  To protect the health of the animals, Shedd scientists and staff reproduce the different natural habitats of the many species as closely as possible.  On another note, the Shedd offers jazz on Wednesday nights during the summer.  Interestingly, evening hours are limited because the animals need their sleep.

The Shedd not only presents a highly entertaining and educational experience for visitors and a comfortable and healthy environment for its aquatic residents, the Shedd also conducts scientific research directed at promoting conservation in the oceans and Great Lakes.  The Shedd has an ocean-going research vessel that sails the Caribbean.   It has other boats to explore the Great Lakes.  Among other things, Shedd scientists study the proliferation of plastics in the seas and Great Lakes and how plastic might be entering the human food chain through the fish we eat.  This work has led to the Shedd’s campaign against the use of plastic straws, which surprisingly are one of the biggest contributors to plastic pollution.  The Shedd has even persuaded a number of Chicago restaurants to stop using plastic straws.

Dr. Coughlin went on to describe research involving penguins whose heart rates can vary from 20 to 200 beats per minute.  How do these birds not pass out or burst?  What is it about the structure of their hearts and blood vessels that can handle so much stress so easily?  Is there a lesson to be learned that can help humans who are suffering from cardiovascular disease?

Turning to the second part of the program, Dr. Coughlin posed the question:  How can Science continue to be respected and supported and attract talented young people to pursue careers in science in an age that is suspicious and skeptical of established authorities and institutions.  Will the zeal for “disruption” disrupt science or advance it?

Social media has tended to democratize information.  There are more sources and less vetting of information.  The ability to freely post personal observations on the Internet has emboldened people to express their views and hold them tightly whether well informed or not.   People Google their symptoms and earn virtual medical degrees within minutes.  They are not bashful about challenging their doctors’ diagnoses.  At the same time, Lyft disrupts cab service, Airbnb disrupts the hospitality business and Spotify disrupts the music business.  The Zeitgeist seems to favor change and egalitarianism.

Yet doing science requires talent and extensive training.  Not everyone can be a scientist.  Science also depends upon empirical testing and reproducible results.  The truth matters.  Everyone’s opinion is not relevant or equal.  Quality peer review has been the mainstay of research.

So how does science, which in some respects is elitist, function in a society that is increasingly suspicious of elites?  How does a profession that insists upon reproducible and accurate test results cope with the phenomenon of fake news?  How does science speak truth to people who increasingly want to believe only what their core identity group believes.

Dr. Coughlin cautioned that it will not be good enough for the science community to simply say to the general public, just trust us.  The science community has to be open to non-scientists asking questions and challenging the status quo.  That means responding to those questions and challenges in multiple public forums.  It was noted that most scientists presently are not incentivized to communicate with the public on social media.  For example, social media postings are not counted toward tenure.  Maybe they should be.  Several strategies for promoting effective communication were discussed.

Dr. Coughlin is asking provocative questions.  Undoubtedly, more ideas will be proposed and tested, and the results will shape future discussions.  That’s the scientific method applied to  marketing science.

On a personal note, stimulated by Dr. Coughlin’s remarks, I see useful analogies in the world of sports.  Americans love sports and their athletes, even though athletes are recognized as elites.  No amateur thinks he or she could go one-on-one with Michael Jordan (even now) or take a game from Roger Federer.  Also, when we talk about our teams, we want the best players, not people like us.  We want our teams to win.

Perhaps the science community can take a few pages from the sports playbook.   Just as star athletes popularize their sports, scientists with a flair for communicating with the public might make more public appearances in-person (such as C2ST programs!) or through print or electronic media to inform the public of discoveries that will improve quality of life or are otherwise intriguing and enriching.  Scientists also might consider presenting “sound” sound-bytes on controversial topics.  Granted, science issues can be complex and nuanced.  But if people who know nothing about science are swaying public opinion using Twitter, perhaps a few scientists with high profiles should use Twitter and similar media to present simplified, reasonably accurate competing messages.

Film is another powerful medium that can shape people’s perceptions.  The science community might consider collaborating more often with film makers to create compelling and entertaining documentaries and block buster narrative films.  For example, the box office smash Black Panther made science and technology look cool and fun and showed how science and technology improve the quality of life and make a society powerful and successful.  If people really want the United States to be a winner in this highly competitive world, then they better support science.  Otherwise, our competitors will overtake us.  For example, countries that can drive down the cost of energy without making their citizens sick with pollution will have a leg up on the countries that limp along with the technology of the past.

If the achievements and potential of science are properly presented, people will understand that science gave us cell phones, polio vaccines, the Internet, clean water, heat (particularly important in Chicago), electricity, our homes and on and on.  Science is not a marginal activity.  It is at the heart of who we are and is the vehicle for progress.  It also is just fun, as anyone who has visited the Shedd will tell you.

Robert Kriss is a member of the Board of C2ST and a partner with the law firm of Mayer Brown LLP.

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