What happened to Team Science?

Last week I saw Hidden Figures, a movie highlighting 3 African-American women who were instrumental in the math work behind NASA’s earliest space missions. I was captivated, and the movie’s success suggests that I wasn’t the only one. The movie showcases the intense obstacles women and African-Americans faced in American society, and sent a message that is still relevant and important today.

One theme that really struck me was the widespread fascination for science, particularly the American space program. Everyone was rooting for the space program. Families crowded in front of the TV to watch coverage of early US space missions, and cheered outwardly at its successes. They were rooting for America in a time of great tension with Russia (sounds familiar…), and they were rooting for scientific progress. Science seemed to be a topic that united Americans.

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Mercury “Friendship 7” Spacecraft by NASA on the Commons

I’ve never witnessed this kind of collective enthusiasm for scientific progress. I don’t think I’ve ever watched live coverage of a science event on TV, and I can’t recall any scientific event that I celebrated with family and non-scientist friends. I think it’s safe to say that science is not uniting Americans right now. My intuition is the reverse: science fuels ideological divides. It gives people more issues to argue about.

To test myself, I googled: “Americans rooting for science.” The only relevant search result I found referred to the “war on science.” Then I searched for that phrase, and there were many relevant and recent results. Americans aren’t united by Team Science; they are at war over it.

How did we get here? Why is science now so inseparable from other political beliefs, and therefore always a topic for debate? Have our national priorities shifted? Have we become a more individualist nation, all burrowing deeply into our own echo chambers? Are we too distracted by cat memes to realize when big scientific stuff is going on?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if it’s a bad thing. But I do wish my earliest memory of gathering in front of a TV had been to watch a rocket taking off and not of the Twin Towers collapsing.


P.S. Feb. 11, 2017: This post by Marcelo Gleiser really hit the nail on the head: “If there is a central lesson in the movie, it is that united we win; that what makes America great is not segregation and intolerance, but openness and inclusiveness.”

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2 thoughts on “What happened to Team Science?

  1. Rose, this must be a generational paradigm. I still vividly recall watching launches from Cape Canaveral on TV and repairs to the Inteynational Space Station. I don’t believe americans’ fascination for science has waned all that much, but there has been a significant cultural detriment with the loss of an active space program. Perhaps it’s worth looking into other scientific fields where American industry has shifted in our current economy.

    1. I also think it’s a generational issue — not necessarily the 1960s vs now, but maybe a gradual shift. I’ve tried thinking about other scientific fields: maybe there’s fairly unanimous excitement about tech advances? But it mostly seems like new knowledge and innovations (like in genetics, or GMOs, or environmental science) all carry heavy ethical implications, so become decisive. I guess it’s a turbulent time in our society and pretty much everything is up for debate… we could really use some unifying scientific breakthrough!

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