On Earth Day this year, April 22, an unknown but large number of scientists will be gathering together, in Washington and other cities, in a March for Science. I’ll be joining them somewhere in or near Oakland. Not only is science central to my being, it’s also central to our civilization.
As the March for Science site puts it, “At its core, science is a tool for seeking answers. It can and should influence policy and guide our long-term decision-making.”
While Earth Day lately has devolved into a day for innocuous tasks, this year it’s the best possible occasion for this march, because Earth science is the central science for the vital tasks ahead — breaking free of the destabilizing carbon economy, fostering a civilization that’s as sustainable as a forest, protecting and repairing the natural systems that provide our resources. Those tasks will require people who are experts at approaching the unknown, ninjas of curiosity.
Curiosity is an undervalued skill. You won’t see it in job requirements. Yet without our intense curiosity, we would still be bands of hairless apes huddled in the African savanna, if not entirely extinct. And when new questions need answers, no one is better equipped to find them than scientists.
Consider what happened during the terrible Deepwater Horizon oil-well blowout in 2010. When standard procedures failed, a panel of scientists was called in to seek answers. When the Challenger spacecraft exploded in 1986, a panel of scientists was called in to seek answers.
These were not experts in drilling or spacefaring technologies; they were experts in handling the unknown. We support jobs for such people not just to keep them busy with their pet problems — what many call “pure research” or “curiosity-driven research” as a put-down — but to ensure a supply of curiosity ninjas. Everyone understands the need for top skills in the performing arts, athletics, law and war. It’s the same with science.
I don’t know exactly what is driving so many powerful people to fear and downplay and deride and defund scientific research, but I know they need to be opposed and replaced by people who prize science. We have tremendous questions about our future on Earth. Who will seek their answers?