The Social Context of Science

How might society influence the general direction of scientific research? The opinions and worldviews of researchers interact with the views of the directors of government funding agencies, legislators, and business organizations that make grants for research. Through these channels, both the questions scientists may test and the ways in which they may be tested are heavily influenced by the society that surrounds them.

Consider the following example. Depression is a disorder that affects nearly 19 million Americans, and billions of dollars have been spent on research. Much of this funding has helped researchers understand changes in brain chemistry and to design effective drug therapies to treat depression. However, we know that major risk factors for depression in the United States include gender (depression is twice as common among women as among men), societal status (risk of depression is greater among ethnic minorities), and geographic location (city dwellers are more likely to become depressed than rural residents). These risk factors suggest that, in addition to biology, environmental conditions probably play some role in the origin of depression. Despite these observations, until recently there has been relatively little research on techniques of preventing depression, even among these high-risk groups. A review of the medical literature reveals six times as many research papers on using drug therapy to treat depression as on the prevention of depression.

Because depression has long been thought of as a disease of the individual, research has focused on what makes depressed individuals “different” and how we can treat these differences. If depression had been seen as a disease stemming from a reaction to poor local condi-tions, the research focus might then have been on what makes an environment likely to lead to depression, and how the environment could be modified to reduce the risk of depression.

At least part of the reason for approaching depression as a “brain disease” is that much of the funding for research comes from pharmaceutical companies. These companies will only realize a profit if they can develop drug treatments. They will naturally be less interested in research on prevention if it involves nonpharmaceutical interventions. The result is many different drug therapies to treat depression, but very little specific advice on how to reduce the risk of experiencing depressive disorders. However, the influence of economics and politics also means that citizens of the United States can have a profound effect on the direction of science by working with their elected officials to increase the federal funding for certain areas of research. Activists in the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, were successful in obtaining major increases in funds for breast cancer and AIDS research. These successes remind us that all citizens—scientist and nonscientists alike—have the power to affect the progress of science. It is our responsibility to use that power wisely and well.

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