Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 28, 2023

It’s time for scientists to get out of the lab

By DUY PHAN | December 8, 2016

“So, I hear about all these Black Student Union protests going on at campus. Can you tell me more about social justice issues going on in Hopkins?”

I froze. I searched my soul for an answer, anything that I concoct, but I could not even mutter a single sentence. All that I could think about was my GPA and work in the lab. Did I even pay attention to anything else on campus other than academic work that only served my self-interest? What seemed like a perfectly interesting and reasonable conversation starter stumped me, perhaps even worse than my organic chemistry midterm exam.

Being stumped made me realize that it’s time for scientists to get out of the lab.

No, I do not mean to say that all scientists need to quit their jobs. Science needs hard-working people to stay in the lab to make scientific discoveries that push back boundaries of human knowledge.

What I mean here is that in addition to the lab, I believe scientists as a whole also need to become more involved in real-life issues that concern not only themselves, but also large populations in society.

There is a stereotype that scientists are boring nerds who live in the lab. Of course this is a sweeping generalization and there are many exceptions to the stereotype, but I have observed (in myself and some others) that there is some truth to the stereotype.

I have realized that at times, I am almost incapable of talking about non-science-related topics (as described in the above). I find this to be quite embarrassing, since there are literally dozens of protests happening right outside the building, yet I don’t even know about them because I am too busy running lab experiments.

Now again, there is nothing wrong with doing experiments, but too many scientists are so wrapped up with the lab that they have completely lost sight of the reality outside of the lab. There is almost a sense of apathy for issues outside of the lab.

Such apathy is dangerous to science, because scientific research ultimately depends on public support. We need more, not less public funding for STEM research.

The only way that this can happen is for scientists to get out of the lab and get in touch with reality. There are too many lawyers and businessmen in government; We need to get more scientists in politics so that people with real scientific expertise can guide policy developments that optimally benefit science.

Even if scientists are not directly running for office, they should also make efforts to engage the public to advocate for science awareness. Scientists often worry about research funding, but if they are not willing to go outside of the lab to advocate, how can they convince lawmakers and the public to invest in research?

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