Under the microscope: Science isn't about grand agendas

I am weary and wary of grand scientific agendas. Promises of curing neurodegenerative diseases, abating international poverty or engineering a completely disaster-proof building make me squirm with skepticism. Thankfully, I am not alone. Most established scientists I meet are similarly skeptical.

That begs the question: does science leave room for idealists?

Definitely. Good science is often about revolution — it requires idealists, diverse thinkers and optimistic fresh minds that prevent us from getting stuck inside existing thought loops. The same can be said about any institution. But to set science apart from other exploratory human endeavours, fellow scientists demand that the excitement and verve engendered by grand agendas be redistributed to daily, actionable discoveries.

I can only speak for myself when I state the cognitive biases I have observed in those who only have excitement for their grand agendas. These people identify strongly with their role as ethically good world-changers, and lack the critical awareness to see all the possible consequences of their research aims. A neuroscientist operating under the bias of a grand agenda, for example, could desire to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but fail to consider that it could lead to anything other than a positive end. In fact, a cure to neurodegenerative diseases could lead to a negative outcome if we do not first plan to provide both physical and emotional support for a population that lives longer and longer.

Rather than being swept away by the excitement we feel for grand agendas, scientific skepticism asks us to bring the same excitement to critically examining what piqued our interest in the first place. We should ask about the logistics of reaching a lofty goal. Where will the funding come from? Who will bring expertise to the project? What is our projected timeline? What are proactive measures against inevitable hurdles?

Most importantly, we should bring genuine excitement for the smallest creative moments that help us answer these questions. Day-to-day victories are less shiny and are not usually validated by external reinforcement. Still, this is what the curiosity and fascination of an idealistic scientist looks like in real time — smiling to oneself after finding a typo in code, chuckling internally after discovering the PCR machine was not plugged or giddily sharing a trippy dream about a novel molecular structure.

Personally, I find a daily fascination is also more compassionate than a grand agenda. Fascination forces me to pay attention to others when they speak, instead of thinking of some nebulous goal I’m working towards. Fascination is a reminder that grand agendas are hard expectations and are often dreams that only the most privileged of us get to dream. Fascination also makes it easier to change my mind and adapt when grand agendas that I’ve committed to start to seem untenable or outright unethical.  

Maybe grand agendas ultimately do more good than I claim. Maybe I lack the temperament to think about one scientific dream and commit all my resources to it. Maybe my words about daily fascination seem a little too granola for you. Regardless, I am primarily dedicated to a pragmatic fascination with the ins-and-outs of rational thought. My doubt of grand agendas is here to stay.

Nivretta Thatra is a master of science candidate at UBC and a senior staff writer for The Ubyssey.