Science and scientists

Recently I was on a selection panel that awards the prestigious McKell medal in recognition of contributions to natural resource management in Australia.

Nominees for the medal are farmers, senior bureaucrats, consultants or researchers, all of whom went beyond the requirements of their job or business to lead, educate and understand best use of natural resources. We reached a point in the proceedings where the relative merits of the nominees were discussed.

As happens every year, there was considerable debate over merit. It is very difficult to compare the relative contributions of candidates from such diverse career paths. When considering the merits of a senior scientist nominated for his research efforts in conservation, one comment from a panel member, an experienced and pragmatic farmer, caught my attention.

He said he’d rather see a result with his own eyes than research findings that said the same thing.

This was because he felt more inclined to believe an outcome if he actually saw it.

I confess that it took me a while to process my colleagues comment, but I think the implications are profound.

It means that whilst science and scientists are revered, hard evidence is what persuades us when it matters most. And then, if all the evidence must be seen, then not only do we have little faith, but our ability to apply scientific discoveries will be limited.

After much debate the panel recommended the medal be awarded to a farmer.

M

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