Bernardo M. Villegas
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Communicating Science

           The fledgling School of Science and Engineering of the University of Asia and the Pacific is true to the roots of UA&P as an offshoot of the Center for Research and Communication, a think tank founded in 1967 to communicate to the nonspecialists the findings of the science of economics.  In late January 2012, it gathered hundreds of high school students in an event in which contestants competed for cash prizes as they demonstrated how effective they were in communicating to the lay people the esoteric findings of the physical sciences.  The students read articles from scientific journals and then tried to put the findings of scientists and engineers into ordinary language so that they could be meaningful to the ordinary lives of citizens.

          At the alma mater of some of the founders of CRC, Harvard University, there is already a tradition for the scientists themselves to communicate their findings to nonspecialists.  In an article that appeared in the Harvard Gazette entitled "Ideas to improve the everyday", there appeared a summary of the ten-minute talks given by leading Harvard faculty members in which they framed big questions about happiness, stem cell growth, runaway obesity, and the exploding American prison population.  The student-organized event was aimed at "bringing big ideas back to the center."  The experts came from diverse schools or institutes like the Harvard Divinity School, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Human Evolutionary Biology Department and the Graduate School of Education.

          Already in its third straight year, the event is labeled "Harvard Thinks Big."   Kaia Stern, a lecturer in ethics at Harvard Divinity School, went further and asked the audience to "act big."  She urged students to think of the one in 30 Americans behind bars or on parole or probation, according to a research of the Pew Center.  She cited data which showed that the United States has a higher incarceration rate than Russia, Iran, Iraq, Canada, Australia, Brazil and Mexico combined.  She said that the surge in mass imprisonment in America is everyone's problem.  "For as long as we tolerate poverty, and live in fear, Americans are complicit in the cycle of crime," she said.  My own take here is that more than an economic problem, the exploding imprisonment rate is due to the breakdown in family values and the increasing number of single mothers and children, especially sons, who grow up without a father.  That is why I find it very logical that the next presidential fight in the U.S. will not be based on "It's the economy, stupid!"  To put words into the mouth of Rick Santorum, "It's morality, stupid!"

          Douglas A. Melton, a leading light in stem cell research, urged the audience to consider a different context for what it means to be human.  He expressed in ordinary language the nature of stem cells and how they are important because they can self-renew, make exact copies of themselves, and specialize.  Melton was inspired decades ago to focus on stem cell research for the pancreas following the diagnosis of two children with type 1 diabetes.  He said the goal is to find the switch that inhibits stem cell growth.  He showed a slide of heavily muscled bull that had just kept growing muscles because the inhibitors to muscle cell growth had been turned off.  He asked a rhetorical question:  "We genetically modify foods.  Why not stimulate muscle cells and inhibit fat stem cells and brain stem cells?"  If I were in the audience, I would have pointed out that biological research should also be subject to morality.  Stem cell research should be limited to adult stem cells.  Using stem cells from human embryo involves murder since human  life begins at conception.  I know of a biotech research institute in Pamplona, Spain called CIMA, that is a global leader in stem cell research which only uses adult stem cells.

          Another biology professor addressed the biggest medical challenge in the U.S.:  runaway obesity, the core of many diseases.   Evolutionary Biology Professor Daniel Lieberman said that there will be 3 billion obese adults by 2015, three years from today.  The major reason is that we have evolved over a relatively short period of industrialization to crave sugar, fat, and salt.  The well-intentioned program of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" program is drowned out by the $2 billion spent to market unhealthy food to children.  Dr. Lieberman finds the problem so alarming that he suggests that the government should require physical exercise just as it mandates vaccinations and other public health measures.  At the school level, he said:  "Instead of thinking big, maybe we should think small and require physical education again."  This should be kept in mind by our educational officials who are designing the curriculum in the K + 12 Program.

          Another finding that has some lessons for us Filipinos was shared by Medical Sociology Professor Nicholas Christakis who revealed that social networks have been vibrant and important to human happiness for thousands of years.  He talked about how happiness has been mapped as something that travels among associates in a network.  He concludes with a statement that is quite obvious to us Filipinos:  "It is the ties between people that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts."  It is good to be assured by an empirical social scientist that we Filipinos are ranked among the happiest creatures on earth because we give a great deal of importance to ties between people, starting with the fundamental unit of society, the family, and going out in concentric circles to our other relatives; to our school mates; to those we work, pray, and play with; and to the community at large.  Let us make sure that in our leading universities, we emulate what Harvard does:  get the nerds to communicate to the common tao.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.