This weekend in Washington, DC, and around the world, concerned citizens will join the March for Science. Organizers say that “science, scientists, and evidence-based policymaking are under attack” and that “budget cuts, censorship of researchers, disappearing datasets, and threats to dismantle government agencies harm us all.”
We imagine that many on the other side will argue that the March for Science is actually about politicizing science — that marchers are taking disagreements about policy and priorities and turning them into a grand crusade about the scientific method.
Does science need to be political? Can science afford to be apolitical? Every commitment we make as a nation is subject to debate and the slash of the pen. This is true for all of our priorities, and you see it playing out in the news every day — military spending, infrastructure, schools, health care. Everything is on the table.
Science is no different. Researchers at the Child Mind Institute and everywhere all have stories of tight research dollars, arcane funding priorities and ideas for how it could work better. Science is a human activity, plagued by imperfections. But allow us to make a crucial distinction: the “hows” of science are complicated, contentious and constantly changing. But the “whys” are more universal.
Scientific inquiry is about honesty, collaboration and improving the human condition. The search for truth gives us the tools we need to make better decisions about how we want to move into the future. A motto that most scientists would agree on is “It’s better to know than not know.” In fields like medicine and mental health that depend completely on continual research, we do the best we can today and always hope that we are proven wrong — so that we can begin a better practice tomorrow that is more firmly rooted in the evidence.
In child and adolescent mental health, this is starkly apparent. For a variety of reasons — including a persistent lack of funding and stigma that encourages us to think kids don’t, can’t or shouldn’t have mental health disorders — we know far too little about psychiatric and learning disorders in young people. We know these young people and their families struggle and suffer. We have hints and experience about how to help them.
But we want to understand more. Because we embrace science, we are not afraid of what it will show us and how it will help children. At the Child Mind Institute, that means a dedication to changing the culture of scientific inquiry, making it more open and honest, more collaborative and nimble, more global, more data-driven, and less dependent on governments. That is not a political dig — it is a practical commitment to helping kids sooner rather than later.
By building a bridge between neuroscience and biology we can discover the biomarkers of mental illness. This will lead to objective tests and tools for diagnosis and treatment monitoring. To do this, we need a massive, international effort to study the developing brain. For our part at the Child Mind Institute, we are collecting the largest, most comprehensive data resource focused exclusively on children and adolescents, openly shared with scientists around the world to accelerate discovery.
“Open science.” “Big data.” These phrases describe new “hows” of science that span the globe, across hundreds of institutions and tens of thousands of people. But what those words also describe is a way of working together, across disciplinary lines, across the lines that separate clinicians from communities. They describe a culture of inquiry that shares insight and experience. They paint a picture of a scientific community that nurtures and supports itself, and that works hand in hand with communities in need. They speak to why we support science: because it is a model for moving together into a better future.