Posted by: ateedub | August 11, 2008

The Olympic Spirit in Science

The Olympics are an amazing international event. I can’t think of any other organization that is able to bring together (nearly) all of the countries of the world for an equally positive experience. While each country roots for their own athletes, this national pride does not create conflict. Instead, we celebrate each others’ achievements and recognize the incredible skill and dedication of all the athletes.

While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is not without its politics and controversies, compare its achievements to those of the United Nations (UN). The IOC brings the world together every 2 years for a sporting event of unparalleled proportions. Unfortunately, the UN is not able to bring together its member states to deal with some of today’s pressing issues, such as hunger, poverty, and education. Nor do UN summits and events bring forth the excitement and good will seen in the Olympics – from the participants or the general public.

In the United States, the summer Olympics allow kids to dream of becoming the next track star, star gymnast, or swimming star. And that has the effect of pushing kids outside to practice their long jump, sprints, or even badminton. One summer my brother and I hosted a mini-Olympics for the neighborhood kids. We spent days cutting and spray painting silver, gold, and bronze medals made of plywood and strung with green ribbon.

So how can we incite this passion for science? Not just in kids, so they can once again dream of growing up to be PhDs, but in everyone in all countries?

In the United States, the only period that compares is the Space Race of the 1960s that truly captured the imagination of the entire country. Kids wanted to be astronauts and physicists. Adults followed the competition between the US and the USSR, rooting for NASA’s plans for manned spaceflight and the trip to the moon. Astronomy, and more importantly, astrophysics and engineering, were like national sports, with the results closely watched.

Competition helps spur public interest, but it is difficult to imagine a scientific competition today that would spark long-term interest in the general public without creating tensions and animosity toward other countries. The Space Race was such a successful public campaign because of the ongoing conflict with the USSR, which fanned the flames of nationalism.

I can think of several big problems that are worthy of competition: an AIDS vaccine or cure, a cost-effective method for creating biofuels from waste biomass (not edible biomass like corn), or a synthetic ozone layer.

A couple of recent science competitions have received some level of public attention, but less I would have hoped. The Human Genome Project was certainly a hot topic at the beginning of the 21st century when Craig Venter’s company, Celera Genomics, raced the international effort led by the National Institutes of Health. Interest in the race heated up as each side claimed to have completed the project, but fell as the details of the relative completeness were discussed. Gaining even less attention than the HGP was the X Prize competition, which aimed to spur private companies to create vehicles capable of space travel.

So, what can be done to spur public attention to and involvement with a scientific competition or challenge?

In the spirit of the Olympics, ScienCentral posted the results of a science literacy quiz awarding countries medals for their correct answers.

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