Making Progress With Our Heads and Our Hearts

Editor’s Recommendation

More Notes from the President

October 2, 2017

"I applaud the genius of invention ... the constant development of new ideas in all fields, which, when put to work, represent the only true progress there is."—J.N. Pew Jr.

The founders of The Pew Charitable Trusts had an abiding belief that science and innovation are essential to moving our nation forward. More than 65 years later, an unwavering commitment to following the truth wherever it leads remains the foundation of Pew’s public service mission. We uncover new data through studies in ecology and biology, as well as social science research, and share what we learn with policymakers and the public. And while we dedicate ourselves every day to a rigorous analysis of facts and data, we know we must also persuade and inspire, which means being respectful of the opinions of others and listening more often than we speak.

This issue of Trust includes examples of how Pew and our partners, following in the footsteps of our founders, use the power of knowledge to address a range of society’s most challenging problems—and the grace of respectful advocacy to bring about change that serves the public interest.

Researchers should be fearless in reporting the results of their work but also cognizant of the concerns and experiences of people who are not scientists.

A recent report by the Pew Research Center, based on surveys conducted in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, demonstrates that there is often a gap between the views of scientists and the public. While the study revealed the very good news that there is broad support for government investment in scientific research, it also showed that Americans are less positive than they were five years ago about the contribution science makes to society. In addition, the public and researchers sometimes have vastly different views on scientific issues, such as the health effects of genetically modified foods.

For their part, 84 percent of scientists believe that the public simply hasn’t learned enough about science to understand the issues, and they see this lack of knowledge as a “major problem.” You can read more about the survey in “A Deep Divide.”

One of the most important tools for bridging the gap between scientists and the public is effective communication. Researchers should be fearless in reporting the results of their work but also cognizant of the concerns and experiences of people who are not scientists. This requires understanding that Americans bring their own interests, histories, cultures, and values to scientific issues. It also requires a commitment to communicating with patience, diligence, and respect.

Using these principles, Pew has worked for years to educate the public about the danger of overusing antibiotics. Many antibiotics that we count on to save lives are losing their effectiveness, which is why we have advocated limiting their use in agriculture to reduce the threat of drug-resistant superbugs to the public’s health. And we welcomed the recent decisions by McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A to stop purchasing chicken fed with antibiotics that are important to human medicine; Wal-Mart’s announcement that it will ask its food suppliers to implement the American Veterinary Medical Association’s principles on the judicious use of antibiotics; and the disclosures by Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods that they will phase out the use of these antibiotics over the next two years. “Serving Up a New Bird” tells the story behind Pew’s efforts to curb the overuse of antibiotics by building bridges among scientists, public health experts, policymakers, industry, and consumers—using rigorous research and a respectful appreciation for the views of others.

We’re also making data-driven progress on a different front. Pew is using information from years of experimentation and best practices to help states develop and implement high-quality home visiting programs. As the story “Bringing Up Baby” explains, good parenting is a learned skill. Pew’s evidence-based standards for supporting young couples and first-time parents with information and coaching have been adopted by 11 states that recognize that home visiting reduces health care costs, improves education outcomes, deters crime, and saves taxpayers $2 for every $1 invested.

As we learned from our founders, we have an obligation to follow the truth wherever it leads. But uncovering facts is not enough. We must also communicate new ideas and information with patience and clarity, appreciate the diversity of opinions and experiences, and take an open-minded approach to our common challenges. We make great discoveries with the power of our minds. But we make shared progress by respecting what people value in their hearts.