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The Black Hole

The public scientist


I was recently invited to give a keynote address at the Human Disease Mapping conference at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland that was fully coordinated by a small group of the college’s PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. The scope was to share my experience and story of my academic career in a period where the global financial and humanitarian crisis is affecting young scientists’ hopes of doing what they love most – science.

 Given its length, I have divided the original talk into multiple posts.

 To read the previous articles in this series please visit the links below:


There is a lot to be said for the public scientist or – more broadly – the public intellectual. If we believe ours is a social function, to improve human health and knowledge through discovery, our education and training requires that we share our informed perspective with others. The fact that most of us are supported almost exclusively by taxpayer dollars demands it. We are elevated by our peers and given the freedom to pursue rigorous academic training through publically-subsidized undergraduate, graduate and fellowship programs so that we can use that knowledge to elevate our peers in turn; this is the primary role of academia. Who is better positioned to comment publically on issues relating to science, technology, education and policy than us? Unfortunately, this is where most of us drop the ball.

For some reason the professionalization of academia, and increased specialization of the research scientist has led us to reward exclusively those who tailor their work to others in their field rather than to audiences beyond it. Worse still is the assumption that given our respective specialist training, no one of us is particularly qualified to speak with any great authority on issues outside of our narrow specialty. This academic subculture promotes the false assumption that communication with non-specialist audience means “dumbing down” the message, and the elitist dismissal of the communicator’s self-proclaimed importance by other scientists who should themselves be contributing their expertise to the issues being discussed.


The fallout from this self-censorship by the scientific community has been disastrous for us:

  • A 2012 Gallup poll shows that in the United States a whopping 46 percent of Americans still believe in creationism – a percentage that has all but remained static in the last 30 years!
  • Hitting closer to home, indiscriminate cuts to basic research – in the U.S. nearly $1.6 billion – and resulting grant funding rates on the order of ~15 percent are significantly jeopardizing future research in biomedical science

In Canada we have not had in recent memory a Minister of State (Industry, Science and Technology) with a graduate degree in science, and there are few politicians worldwide with strong science qualifications.

Instead of investing in only the few world experts on a topic the wherewithal (job security, international recognition, seniority etc.) to speak publically on socially-relevant issues, we should open up the podium to the rest of us with an educated perspective on the topic as well. Scientists in general should be empowered to speak on issues of science and technology, as we have – by our training – relevant knowledge just above that of the average layperson.

Specialist training of the narrowest focus is oftentimes not needed to translate the fundamental issues being discussed at the societal level. This is true for all of the other specialties we train, and is ultimately the purpose of our taxpayer-funded higher education system. Consider that more than 99 percent of the world’s population does not hold a PhD degree, and fewer still hold a PhD in science/technology/political science. You are the 1 percent most qualified to provide the educated perspective. And while there will almost certainly be some backlash; the purpose is to change the status quo. Academe has never formally elected public scientists from our ranks, and the alternative to lending your perspective to public issues is to allow uninformed opinion to direct societal decisions. It is precisely you who the world is looking at to translate basic research and comment on science policy. Let this be your invitation.

Without you, this increasing body of knowledge – the scientific frontier that you can hardly keep up with – is all but inaccessible to the very people who are paying for it, and especially to the larger world who can’t afford to. I may have entertained objections to this idea pre-Wikipedia, tweets, Facebook likes, and Google +1’s, but certainly not in the connected social media world we now live in. In this age, each one of us has a duty to assume the role of public intellectual. As in science, each new voice helps direct the choir and brings us into harmony.

I should probably repeat: I am not trying to talk anyone out of an academic research career – academics are needed. The question for you is: why stop there when there is so much more you can do? Then, after you have created for yourself options that offer a higher salary, greater job security, a better standard of living, and the ability to make a more immediate difference in the world, choose how you want to practice science – knowing that if you are ever unhappy with your decision, the shear amount of overlap between professions means that you can always switch tracks.

The world is your oyster.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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