Richard Wintle: benefiting society in many ways

Richard Wintle is a geneticist and molecular biologist by training, with experience in both academia and the biotech industry. He currently serves as the Assistant Director at The Centre for Applied Genomics at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada. He spends much of his time writing grants and reports, and generally helping to run the operation, but still finds time to do a little “real” science every now and then.

The question, “why is science important”, is of particular interest in troubled economic times, when the public might prefer to see funding allocated to social programs, propping up the manufacturing industry, or guaranteeing stable levels of unemployment insurance. There are many theoretical and academic arguments for science that have been articulated much more clearly by others - the pushing back of boundaries constraining our knowledge, the thrill of discovering things that nobody has ever known before, the potential for long-term benefit worldwide. If nobody had ever discovered the properties of semiconducting materials, where would global telecommunications be now?

However, I’d like to focus on another aspect. Because science, quite apart from making interesting discoveries, is also about benefiting society in other ways. And one of the most important is that science trains people to think critically. One of my own PhD committee members told me that “getting a PhD is not about learning a particular field, or writing really good papers, or learning techniques - it’s about learning to to be a scientist.” That means learning to examine a problem, consider many alternatives, and devise a robust strategy for finding out what the “real” answer is, in a properly controlled way that leaves as little as possible to chance. People who are formally trained in scientific discovery, at any level, by and large should (and I do concede that single word, “should”) be better equipped to make sense of all kinds of data in the world around them, including scientific data itself, but also the latest opinion poll, or information presented in the many forms of news media surrounding us today.

In my view, the benefit of this cannot be understated. We live in an information-rich age, and I’d argue that critical thinking skills are more important now than they have ever been in human history. Yes, other disciplines can teach these skills, but they are clearly part and parcel of the discipline we call “science”, in its broadest definition.

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