3M Creates State of Science Index Survey, Interview with 3M Corporate Scientist and Chief Science Advocate

3M commissioned a survey on how the public perceives science and included participants from all over the world. The study is titled the 3M State of Science Index. I had the opportunity to interview Jayshree Seth, 3M Corporate Scientist and Chief Science Advocate about the index. Before we get to the interview, however, let’s take a look at some of the results.

3M summarized their findings in three areas:

  • Image of science: Around the world, people are fascinated with science, but a clear and powerful skepticism exists.
  • Impact of science: People appreciate science from a distance, but it is taken for granted in everyday life.
  • Expectations of science: People have high hopes for what science can achieve, but there are barriers to overcome.

Not only did I find the survey fascinating, but I also found Seth’s insights into the study intriguing. As 3M’s Chief Science Advocate, she has spent a lot of time discussing the research and examining the results.

Why do you think the Index is important?

Jayshree Seth speaking during a panel on the 3M State of Science Index. Panel can be viewed below. (Image credit: Alejandro Rojas)

As an employee at a global science and innovation company, I understand the importance of science because it is what I do every day. As a scientist, I also see the role science plays in my everyday life. I also recognize that scientific advancements are going to be key as our society continues to evolve and the global population grows to over 9 billion by 2050. But what about the rest of the population?

The 3M State of Science Index provides key insights into how the general public understands, values and perceives science and the impact it has on their lives – and on society – today, and in the future. It’s important to understand how people perceive science because if people don’t value science, don’t understand the role it plays or are indifferent to it; there could be consequences. For example, negative perceptions of science may impact young people entering the field and, in turn, this could impact future science innovation at a time when we need it most.

Prior to the survey, insights into how the general public views science simply did not exist on a global scale. The Index does a great job in laying the groundwork and providing us with the knowledge we need to engage the public better and communicate the importance of science.

What results were most surprising to you?

I think for me, the most surprising finding was that nearly 4 in 10 people around the world (38%) say if science didn’t exist, their lives wouldn’t be much different. In our increasingly connected world, how is this even possible? It all boils down to the fact that there are people who just don’t recognize that science plays a part in almost everything we use in our daily lives. In fact, two-thirds of the world (66%) rarely stop to consider the impact science has on their lives.

I was also disheartened to see that 36% of people feel you need to be a genius to have a career in science.  This is absolutely not true.  Any scientist will tell you that tenacity, curiosity, creativity, and collaboration are just some of the characteristics that make a good scientist, it’s not just about a natural gift for science. What worries me about this thinking is that we are writing off our ability to understand or pursue science and at risk for passing along this unconscious bias to children.

We need to advocate for science, and champion science and the people behind it.  We need to make it more accessible and more relatable. This way, we as a global population, can start to see the significant impact science plays in our everyday life and realize that anyone – not just geniuses – can have a future in science. This is very important because we will need an inspired next generation of scientists to tackle global challenges facing society.

In what way do you feel people are confused between technology and science?

I think, in general, people don’t understand that science and technology are intertwined, and that they benefit from one another. This is highlighted by the State of Science Index findings that point to general confusion about the relationship between science and technology.

For example, nearly 50 percent of the population believe that technological advancement is more important than scientific, and just over 40 percent also concluded that without science, there is no technology. This thinking doesn’t quite make sense. If there is no technology without science, then shouldn’t technological advancement and scientific advancement be seen as equally important?

It’s true that science and technology are not the same things, but it’s important to recognize that they do exist hand in hand. Take your smartphone, for example. This is one of the greatest technological advancements we’ve seen in our lifetimes, and it would not have been made possible without some serious scientific breakthroughs. It is good, sound science that fueled this technology.

3M State of Science Index panel. From left: Jen Schwartz (Moderator), Vanessa HIll, Dr. Jayshree Seth, Dr. James Kakalios, and former astronaut Scott Kelly. Panel can be viewed below. (Image credit: Alejandro Rojas)

What would you tell someone to help clear up that confusion?

I would tell them that technology and science are both more than meets the eye. It is important to look beyond the surface and think about all the parts that make up the whole. When we think of technology and recent technological breakthroughs, some of the first things to come to mind are computers, cell phones, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, 3-D printing, etc. But there is a scientific component to all of these as well. 

For example, the reason cell phones are able to be so thin, lightweight and powerful is because of the science behind reflective films that make the screen brighter, adhesives that are lightweight and hold the components together, and advancements to the science behind the batteries.

Science today goes much further than the stereotype of the scientist with goggles and a chemistry set in the lab. Scientists are applying the scientific method to find solutions that span industries. In fact, it is hard to say when science ends and technology starts. Today, science helps further technological breakthroughs and technology is helping science!

How would you state 3M’s relationship with science and technology?

At 3M, we apply science to develop technology that then supports our various product offerings.  We have 46 diverse technology platforms, ranging from adhesives, abrasives, nonwovens, and nanotechnology to electronics and software. We realize the intrinsic link between science and technology and leverage them to find the best solutions to advance customers, enhance homes and improve lives.

For instance today our world is increasingly data-driven, and the need for connected infrastructure is more and more in demand, as such, we take this into consideration with everything we do. We have an AI and big data group working to see how our products can work in a connected world. Take the future of transport, for example. Everyone thinks it is about the car and the technology within the car, but it so much more than that. In order for drivers and pedestrians to be safe, the surrounding infrastructure must also be equipped with the right sensors, colors, and markers. That’s where science comes in.

View the survey website here. You can also download a PDF here.

Watch Jayshree and panelists discuss the 3M State of Science Index…

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