Science and the pursuit of knowledge

Why we should consider studying the ‘less employable’ sciences

▲ The Hamilton Photo Credit: Joe McCallion/ Trinity News

What has been pivotal in both the arts and the sciences even before they were formally instituted as separate branches of study has been the underlying curiosity of human beings, who like you and me, had the innate desire to further understand the world around them. Within the sciences, appreciation for this core principle has been undermined and the consequences are clear.

Within our own undergraduate science community here at Trinity it is no secret that one of the key factors influencing moderatorship choice is the prospect of steady employment and the likelihood of earning a good salary. I cannot blame anyone for making their decision based on these two factors. In a world where a steady job and a good financial situation are necessary to make a living it is only natural that when faced with this choice, students may end up choosing moderatorships that provide them with greater certainty for their future. Where such students do indeed prefer a different subject choice, but are discouraged by the uncertainty of being able to make a living from it I do indeed see a cause for concern.

The subjects which suffer the most from this are often the natural sciences; Zoology, Botany and Environmental Science. Those that gain tend to be the other biological sciences; Neuroscience, Genetics, Immunology and Microbiology among others – subjects which I want to make clear I consider to be equally worthy of study as any of the natural sciences. What each the latter subjects have in common are that they are all relatively new and growing fields of biology with obvious practical and economic applications in our everyday lives. They have all undergone enormous growth in the last century facilitated by the rapid advance of technology.

Indeed, it is the novelty and the pace at which technology in these fields is advancing which makes them extremely important economically. As a result, the potential for each continues to grow and with it the opportunities for well-paid employment. While these fields have expanded into the industrial and services sectors, the natural sciences have largely remained confined to academia and teaching, financed mostly by public funding.

 

Science benefits most when those working in each branch are enthusiastic about their own subject. The pursuit of knowledge has been at the core of scientific advancement for centuries, and pioneers, such as Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie all shared the desire to further their understanding of the various branches of science. This desire in turn led to each making the discoveries which radicalised our perception of biology, medicine and physics respectively. Science is founded upon observation and empirical evidence but above all it requires an inquisitive and open mind.

Darwin was conscious of the dynamic relationship between living organisms and their abiotic environment and it was his knowledge of both geology and biology allowed him to do so. Based on my own experience, science at Trinity is taught with an integrative approach, providing us with a good foundation with which we will then be able to work in any area of interest. However, this does not change the fact that even for those who do study natural sciences there is no guarantee of employment within their chosen field and many graduates end up leaving the field entirely.

Discoveries continue to be made by those working in the natural sciences and current research often takes into consideration ecosystem-wide approaches relevant to conservation and sustainability, both of which have economic and social implications for society. Even in these cases it is hard to put an economic value on the discoveries which in turn makes it difficult to convince the general public of the importance of investing in such research when money could instead be spent on research targeted at directly improving our lives. At the core of academic research institutions should be the value of the pursuit of knowledge wherever that may be. Furthering our understanding of how our world works is both worthy and worthwhile irrespective of the economic benefits or even practical benefits it may bring.  

As I am second-year science student, this article has focused on aspects of research in the various scientific disciplines but ultimately my argument applies to the arts just as much as it does in any of the science fields.

Science has allowed us to live far easier lives than those of our ancestors. From modern agriculture to electricity, scientific advances have driven the progress of human civilisation, but science is also far more than that. Science is a path to knowledge, something which has attracted me along with many others to study it in the first place. It is through science that we learn how exactly it is that the world around us works, and it also through the scientific lens that we seek answers to questions thus far unanswered.

To me this is exactly what science is about – The Pursuit of Knowledge – and, to fully appreciate the extent of science we needn’t look further than any quality documentary on animals or the likes produced by organisations such as the BBC, each of which is built on years of scientific research without which they simply would not be possible.