Eventually, I tried applying a similar thought process to my scientific
interests. I found that approach to
science much more appealing—and
also useful. I took it with me as I became a scientist.
Brushes with waterborne illness
and professional experiences with
water filtration inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. in public health, focusing
on the waterborne transmission of
Helicobacter pylori in Lima. I chose
it because it’s a big-picture project, a
collaboration between public health
officials, scientists, and doctors with
the shared goal of providing data-driven advice to policymakers.
I rapidly discovered that new data,
or a new technical approach, won’t
solve access to clean water. After
all, the technology to improve water quality is already available, and
water-treatment infrastructure is known to be cost-effective.
The problem persists because the challenge of clean water
ties into complex political and social issues: culture, economics, science, emotion, ideology. You can’t solve such problems
without accounting for the bigger picture. Narrow thinking
can even lead to strategies that do harm, like privatization
efforts in Peru that modestly improved water infrastructure
but priced the poor out of the market. As our challenges become more complex, even strictly scientific problems require
a broader perspective, akin to that embraced by historians,
philosophers, and other humanist scholars.
I have benefited from studying history in other ways.
I learned to think critically and to write rigorous, compelling
qualitative arguments. Slashed research budgets make writ-
ing about broader impacts more crucial than ever. Academic
scientists must defend their work against competing politi-
cal and economic priorities, not just in grant proposals but
also in public and political spheres. Scientists are increas-
ingly involved with governments
and policymakers: Every year, we’ve
had to justify our research project to
a new Peruvian minister of health in
order to legally continue.
As stable academic science positions stagnate, a growing proportion of scientists seek employment
outside academia. Private-sector
and governmental careers usually
require thinking that encompasses
regulatory and cultural concerns—
and pragmatic concerns like profits. The ability to consider and
weigh diverse arguments and to
communicate clearly with various
stakeholders is essential.
Science’s inherently reductive approach and its acute attention to
the finest details have yielded great
benefits. But the scope of science is
changing. In addition to practicing
the traditional craft, today’s scientists need to be prepared
to tackle complex challenges in a globalized (and multidisciplinary) world, to think critically about how we solve
problems, and to communicate persuasively with diverse audiences. More than my science classes did, studying history
taught me these skills. Scientists can be too eager to write
off other disciplines as “soft,” subjective, and therefore inferior to science and its rigorous approach. Those other fields,
though, can enhance the practice and understanding of science, among scientists and the public. I encourage my peers
to think about science in this larger context, as a liberal art
intrinsically tied to its cousins and aimed at illuminating,
improving, and adding meaning to the human experience. ■
Kevin Boehnke is a doctoral candidate at the University of
Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor. For more on
life and careers, visit sciencecareers.org. Send your story to
SciCareerEditor@aaas.org. I L L U S T
“I encourage my peers to
think about science in this
Oh the humanities!
Throughout my science education, I have dutifully memorized facts: the stages of photosynthesis, the enzymes involved in the Krebs cycle, how to balance equations in chemical reactions. In contrast, the focus of my ancient history classes was on answering big, open-ended questions: Why did historical figures act in certain ways? How did the assassination of Julius Caesar affect he Roman Empire? Would our world be different had he not been murdered? There were other questions, too, related not just to historical events but to the nature of knowledge, to what we
know and how we know it. What’s the evidence? How reliable is it? Does the conventional explanation
account for all the available information (including competing ideas) and the broader context?
By Kevin Boehnke