OSU University Day speaker gives direct assessment of areas where science and higher education need to do better

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Editor-in-chief of science journal Holden Thorp on Tuesday presented an unvarnished view of the challenges facing higher education and the scientific community, especially in light of the pandemic, during a keynote address at Oregon State University.

Thorp spoke to University day, OSU’s annual launch of the new academic year for faculty and staff. Nearly 1,000 people viewed the virtual event which was held remotely due to COVID-19 and included the announcement of awards given to OSU faculty and staff for teaching, research, exemplary leadership and service over the past year.

Thorp explained how the interaction between scientists, politicians, and the public is linked to current misinformation, scientific illiteracy, political interference, and systemic racism, which he says contributes to mistrust of the science and dissatisfaction with higher education institutions.

As the editor of the Science family of journals, a former research chemist, former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and former rector of the University of Washington, Thorp has been able to sympathize with researchers and scholars. university administrators.

“Universities are increasingly difficult to manage,” he said. “The pandemic has made things more difficult, mainly because we have a huge disconnect between what people expect from higher education outside and what higher education is able to do and wants to do at home. interior. “

Rather than seeking knowledge for the sake of clarification, Thorp said outside stakeholders often demand that universities produce tangible results and applied research, especially to advance the fields of medicine and military defense. .

The expectation of focusing narrowly on high-level applied sciences also leads science undergraduates to miss out on a more holistic education, Thorp said. This means that many scientists lack the liberal arts or humanities skills needed to effectively communicate their science to the public.

“You hear academics say, ‘Well, science communication isn’t the same as rigorous scientific research.’ But these are very important efforts and we should celebrate and encourage our students and colleagues who are ready to do it (communication), ”he said. “Let’s face it, a lot of us who are good at research are terrible at this.”

Following Thorp’s presentation, Selina Heppell, OSU Faculty Senate President and Head of the Fisheries and Wildlife Department, and distinguished professor of microbiology Rebecca Vega-Thurber participated in a panel discussion with Thorp.

Heppell pointed out that the importance of science communication has been highlighted by the pandemic, as the public has witnessed the ‘science mess’ in real time, with emerging data disproving old assumptions and prompting new ones. recommendations. Vega-Thurber said some of the current hesitation and resistance to vaccines is rooted in the history of colonialism in Western science and in the racist practices of some doctors and scientists.

Thorp listed several warnings and findings scientists have made over the past 18 months that have not been heeded by the public: The pandemic will last for years; the virus will evolve; masks work; vaccines protect against serious illness, not infection; asymptomatic transmission occurs; and racism can be measured and quantified.

He said the fact that the public has largely refused to accept these means means that scientists have to ask themselves where they have failed to get their message across and what they can do differently in the future.

“It’s a challenge because we want people to buy our whole story at the same time, and we’re not going to get them that way,” he said. “We need to understand how we thwart social media and cable news numbers that aren’t constrained by the constraints we have. … Somehow we have to figure out how to sell this in a more nuanced way.

Thorp also answered questions from the public on accessibility issues of scientific publications, both for readers and for scientists wishing to publish; how Science as a journal strives to make its community more inclusive; and the importance of recognizing racism and other systemic biases in the review and publication processes of scientific journals.

“We have to have the courage to be prepared to face a lot of racism, sexism and homophobia that has been part of science for all this time,” he said. “There are a lot of people who still don’t want to face this, but we’re doing everything we can to have conversations about these topics. “

The Zoom recording of the opening speech is available on the University day website.

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