Understanding science process, product, and culture

What a simple word: science. Two short syllables, easily pronounced. Yet, to many, science is mystifying. As we cope with COVID-19, perhaps it is a good time to discuss how science works.

According to the National Academies of Sciences, our most prestigious scientific organization, science is,”the use of evidence to construct testable explanation and prediction of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.” To practitioners, science is a process, a product, and a culture.

As a human construct, science — by its very nature — is imperfect. But the scientific process acknowledges and addresses imperfections by specific actions aimed at improving data quality, reducing conflict of interest, and increasing repeatability.

Science begins when curious individuals ask novel questions. Those novel questions are then answered (imperfectly) through the structured collection of data, data analysis, and the preparation of a manuscript describing background, methods, results, and implications of findings. The manuscript is then subjected to peer review.

Peer review is defined as “the process of evaluating scientific work by a group of experts in the related field. It is also known as refereeing because the work or project must be critiqued before it is published, funded, or implemented.”

Explicitly, peer review takes into account conflicts of interest. Reviewers are expected to have no relationship with the authors of the submitted manuscripts, making peer-reviewed manuscripts quite different than a report coming from an individual organization or office. Reports often suffer by not being refereed by outside entities devoid of bias.

Science is communicated among professionals in a written format. A good scientific motto is: beware what you hear, be skeptical of what you read. The product of peer-reviewed science is called a “paper.” Papers are published in “journals.” Journals, such as “Forest Ecology and Management,” “The Journal of Wildlife Management,” or the countless other journals in an array of disciplines, compete for prestige either regionally, nationally, or internationally.

Journals have a board, an editor, and a suite of associate editors. Those scientists set the direction for the journal and oversee the selection of reviewers who evaluate the quality of submitted manuscripts. For some journals, acceptance rates (the proportion of submitted manuscripts done well enough to be accepted and represent the standards of the journal) can be as low as 20%. The more prestigious the journal, the higher its standards and lower its acceptance rate.

For forest and wildlife ecologists, the entire process — from posing a question to seeing a paper through the peer-review process and published in a journal — may take years. Besides describing many aspects of the scientific process, papers also acknowledge the contributions of individuals and organizations.

So, what are textbooks? One can think of textbooks as a compilation and summary of relevant papers on a topic. Because science changes, textbooks are updated fairly often. Each new version of a textbook summarizes and references recent papers and those whose findings have lasted the test of time.

Science is a human enterprise aimed at serving society by advancing knowledge. Science does not make decisions but allows decisions to be evidence-based.

Not surprisingly, natural resources management guidelines change over time because the scientific foundation they are based on changes and the contexts in which the science is applied change. Natural resource management in 2020 is very different than management in 1950. If we think our knowledge of the natural world is complete, or if we think “one-size-fits-all” approaches apply, we may be fooling ourselves in many instances.

Unfortunately, some decisions occur without the transparency of the science that is meant to guide the art that is management. That may occur because too few scientists are employed within our institutions or too few of our leaders are scientists. Scientists are needed to instill a culture of science.

A culture of science encourages curiosity and rigorous debate based on data and methodology. At its core, a culture of science openly challenges dogma and rhetoric. Social vagaries, social sensitivities, group thinking, or politics can squash a culture of science.

As a critical component of evidence-based decision making, the public should support a culture of science throughout all phases of society.

While healthy skepticism is important, the public should also strive to be informed on the current state of science as it relates to issues that impact our lives. Always ask if findings being presented have been published and, if so, where. If interested, Google Scholar can be used to see what science is being done, where, and by which scientists (keywords can include topics of interest, locations, names of authors, or a combination).

In science, process, product, and culture matter.

Greg Corace is the forester for the Alpena-Montmorency Conservation District. For more information, Greg can be contacted at greg.corace@macd.org or phone 989-356-3596, ext. 102.


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