By Toby Hendy, Ryan Ridden-Harper and Josh Mangos from the University of Canterbury

What comes to mind when you think about science? Are you a scientist? If not, could you be?

We can all be awestruck when we consider how the things in our life actually work and the technology behind them. What kind of person does it take to contribute to our collective knowledge? Take a look around you now and think about what you see. You could be inside at a desk or outside in the sunshine, it doesn’t matter. Anywhere you are, you will be surrounded by an amazing complexity; the question is, do you see it? If your surroundings seem pretty dull then science can help you to view the world in a different way.

What is science?

There is plenty of confusion what science actually is. Some of us think that science is a belief system followed by people in white coats and glasses. The truth is that science is a tool, the best tool we have ever known and a tool which has rewarded us like no other. It is used by our minds to discover the inner workings of our universe.

Science requires us to approach the world with equal amounts of three key principles; curiosity, scepticism and imagination. Curiosity is what drives our desire to explore and understand the universe, to the smallest of details. Scepticism is required so that no result, observation or claim is accepted on its face value but challenged rigorously. Imagination lets us apply the results we find to solve all kinds of real problems.

A powerful method for investigation was born from these three key principles of science, which became known as the scientific method. To use it, first ask a question and consider its implications to develop a theory. Finally, test out the theory and see if it holds up, or fails to explain what you see. If all results seem to be explained then can you plan a test that will give something unexpected?

To explore how the scientific method is used, let us imagine a basic experiment. You are going to throw a ball up into the air for the first time. Beforehand you develop a theory that the ball will forever rise after being thrown and you’re quite proud of it. After throwing the ball, to your astonishment, you observe that the ball gets slower and slower as it climbs into the sky, eventually stopping just for a moment, to then fall straight back to the ground. Thinking it is a fluke, you try again only to see the exact same result. Your theory has failed to match repeated observation, something must be wrong with it.

Later you come across Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, which accurately describes what you saw in your experiment. It becomes obvious that your theory is incorrect and that Newton’s theory of gravity is a better description of the world. As it turns out, Newton’s theory of gravity was not perfect either and has since been succeeded by Einstein’s theory of gravity.

Scientists always push the boundaries of theories. Theories are never proven but they become widely accepted once they have successfully defended themselves against the rigours of scrutiny. After all, one day someone may develop an experiment that shows something completely unexpected, giving theorists something new to work on. As said by Max Planck, a founder of quantum theory, “Science advances one funeral at a time”, so as new advances are made, previous theories must be laid to rest.

The scientific method is what empowers us. When knowledge is gained through the exploration of facts and ideas, we gain a valuable tool for probing the world in which we live. The scientific method does not just improve our understanding, but instead produces practical and rigorously tested results which lead on to shaping our future.

Science might be sounding a little tricky by now, but the determination required is an easy trade off when you consider why we even do science in the first place.

Why do we do science?

We are compelled to do science by an intense curiosity within us to learn. Our survival as a species is a monument to this instinct. With it our ancestors began to investigate using tools and controlling fire, both crucial skills. Driven by curiosity they then investigated and experimented with domestication of plants and animals. This gave them, for the first time, a stable food supply. By taking note of patterns seen in the rising of stars, they were able to predict the seasons and navigate vast distances; this was the birth of astronomy. The eras of humanity which followed saw the rise and fall of civilisations across the globe, but one thing persisted in each individual, that insatiable curiosity of the world. We each have a need to understand the universe not only for practical reasons, but also for philosophical reasons. We are self aware and long to know where we fit into the cosmic tapestry.

To explore how science can act as an engine of cultural and economic growth, let us first consider the science model of the Nordic countries including Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. These countries share similarities with New Zealand in landmass, population and resources. One stark difference is that the Nordic countries are heavily reliant on technological innovation to drive their productivity. The research that is funded is not just that which has obvious practical outcomes, but also apparent ‘blue skies’ research that looks for better theoretical understandings.

Why would we want to fund research that has no obvious application? So called blue skies research receives criticism because there are many current issues that need to be solved now rather than later. It is true however that blue skies research can have resounding benefits later down the line which never could have been anticipated.

To consider this claim let us think about the example of the humble candle. When our only form of lighting was the candle, scientists could have been set hard at work to improve the candle through all the engineering and development possible. We might have been able to achieve a slightly better candle through a different shape or wax composition but our lighting would still be severely limited. The electric light bulb, which truly revolutionised our life, was conceived through seemingly unrelated experiments in electromagnetism. These experiments would have been classed as blue skies, showing the importance of serendipity and creativity in scientific progress.

Now let’s think about New Zealand’s science funding model. Considering New Zealand’s size, we are an extraordinarily successful country when it comes to science and innovation. New Zealanders have made significant contributions to discovery and we have been home to 3 Nobel Prize recipients. We definitely don’t lack the ability to think and solve problems, but our Kiwi ingenuity is not always used to its full potential. In the book ‘Get off the Grass’ written by New Zealand scientist Shaun Hendy in collaboration with the late Sir Paul Callaghan, the pair state that New Zealand could build a sustainable industry of tens of billions of dollars in the next decade. They suggest we could achieve this through the creation of just 100 firms based on selling high-tech innovations. This source of income for the country would pale our current reliance on dairy and other primary industries.

The perception of science

The way that science is perceived by the public can either inhibit or invigorate its progress. Cultures that maintain high perceptions and standards of science become hives of advancement and knowledge, whereas cultures with negative views run the risk of becoming stagnant; culturally and economically. It is in the comparison between the European Renaissance and the Dark Ages that this difference is most stark. When knowledge was valued; culture thrived.

With the average Kiwi tuning in for three and a half hours of television every day, it is fair to assume that our current perceptions of the world manifest as what we spend our time watching. The programme lists for TVNZ’s top 20 shows (TVNZ, 2013 annual report, page 20) reveal something quite peculiar. There are no educational science shows. Not at peak time. Not at off time. Not at all.

You may try to think back and remember seeing science on a national channel but all that will come into your head is probably Sheldon Cooper singing “Soft Kitty, Warm Kitty, little ball of fur…”. It’s possible that the Big Bang Theory has scattered a few quirky scientific facts into our lunchtime discussions, but in the aim to create a thriving innovative society; it’s not really that helpful. To have our scientists portrayed as socially inept, obsessive and deserving of a laugh track, is further ingraining that science is done by people who are ‘not like us’. School is a difficult place for many people and one teasing remark after expressing an interest in science can really make the difference to a young person’s choice between pursuing their passion or following something else.

It is very troubling that our media displays science in a way that makes it gimmicky and discredited. In the BBC’s 2014 outline statement (BBC, 2013 annual report overview, page 1) they note ‘furthering education’ as one of their six goals. New Zealand and Britain share many parallels but when it comes to television, so why don’t our national channels have the same values? What is shown to us is not just a decision made by media companies, but a reflection of our own behaviours. If we continue to turn our back on knowledge and education we will continue to build scaffolding in which a scientifically illiterate society will grow and flourish.

Of course it is not just television content that influences what we know. It is a combination of TV, newspapers, radio, billboards, magazines, books, and of course the internet. On the internet there is more scientific information than you could poke a stick at; accessibility in this case is not a problem. The issue is that if negative perceptions of science continue to be formed and shared between people, then less and less people will bother to travel far away from internet cats.

If we cannot turn around our perceptions of science then we are heading for a devastating future where we are no longer able to distinguish fact from fiction. It would be a future without research and advancement. New Zealand’s economy would struggle to keep up with global advances. We would find ourselves no longer as world leaders, but rather, world followers. The proud Kiwi identity, known for extraordinary ingenuity, will dwindle and fade.

The final challenge

It is not a sorrowful tale we wish to paint of science; but rather the opposite. Science is an embodiment of triumph, reward and enlightenment. It is one of the simplest forms of joy. You don’t need years of training or a PhD to find gratification in science, nor do you need this to call yourself a scientist. Everyone can be a scientist. From the curious child to the inquisitive adult; a scientist is somebody who looks at the world and wonders ‘why?’. A scientist is someone who doesn’t accept problems, and instead always considers a solution. You can be a scientist at home, at work, during study and during rest. You can support New Zealand’s culture of discovery by being aware of how science works and what it has to offer.

We now challenge you to be a scientist. Approach the world with unbounded curiosity, don’t settle for claims based on authority, investigate it for yourself and form your own opinions. Turn your imagination loose on the evidence you uncover.

Don’t ever stop asking why.

About the authors

Toby Hendy: An undergraduate physics and mathematics student who loves communicating, learning and seeing science push new boundaries.
Ryan Ridden-Harper: A mathematical physics student who is passionate about science outreach and education.
Josh Mangos: A media student who is interested in understanding science reporting.