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Where Science Meets Society

The United States needs a full-fledged commitment to advance science and engineering

Following is an excerpt from the Presidential Lecture by President Shirley Ann Jackson given at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C., in February. The address, titled “Nexus: Where Science Meets Society,” was the culmination of her tenure as president of AAAS, the nation’s largest scientific society. After outlining the strengths that have resulted in U.S. dominance in science and engineering for more than a half-century, President Jackson urged the audience to take action to secure this dominance for the 21st century.

Dr. Jackson *
Today, I have focused, primarily, on factors which affect the capacity for innovation, which has its roots in the strength and vitality of scientific enterprise and which play off each other — the multidisciplinarity inherent in important scientific questions, in the application of science, globalization, and national security, the availability of science and engineering talent, and the multiple voices speaking for science in the public policy arena.

So what should we do?

First, we, as a nation, must recognize the centrality of science and engineering for our national security, our economic health and well-being, and our ability to help alleviate human suffering worldwide.

This means we need a full-fledged national commitment to invest significantly, competitively, and deeply in basic research in science and engineering across a broad disciplinary front, even in the face of competing priorities. It is stunning when people say that science is just another special interest group, because science (and technology) is the root of our success, but it is so embedded, that it is taken — entirely — for granted.

Second, we must have a national focus and commitment to develop the complete talent pool: to re-ignite the interest in science and mathematics of all of our young people, and to identify, nurture, mentor, and support the talent which resides in our new majority — “the underrepresented majority” population. This requires a focus on early education and preparation, especially in mathematics.

But, how do we encourage talented students to commit themselves to the sciences as early as middle school? To stay the often difficult course through high school? To find the means to attend the university, and continue through post-graduate work? To transition into the workplace, the laboratory, the design studio?

Some incentives necessarily must be financial. This would require more economic support for students, and support for a broader socio-economic range of students (of all ethnic backgrounds), and at all educational levels, through graduate school.

An example as others have suggested could be patterned on portable fellowships like those once offered as a result of the National Defense Education Act for graduate study in science and engineering.

Third, the scientific community must engage on key public policy issues in a consistent, proactive, not reactive way. Public policy is not always — perhaps, not often — an ideal forum for fair debate. It is a roiling marketplace where every voice has its own agenda, and where an issue can become veiled and confused. But, it is a public marketplace for ideas, it is democratic, and it is open. Of course, the public and our political leaders must be willing to listen. There needs to be greater awareness and greater respect for scientists and the role of science in resolving critical national and international issues.

The nexus of science and society is not always comfortable for scientists or for the public at large. But, since public institutions, largely, fund basic research, and support the training of students, science and public policy (even politics) are joined.

We need to look not only at the technical dimensions of public policy, but at the policy dimensions of technological change which springs from basic science.

Fourth, we must engage the public and make science more accessible to all. That is why the AAAS outreach efforts should be more strongly replicated by other, more discipline-specific scientific and engineering professional societies.

It is important that the scientific community, in its outreach, helps people, not only to see the fun of science, but also to understand what science is, what a scientific theory is — as opposed to belief, how science is done, that accepted scientific models or theories are based on evidence, the testing of hypotheses by experiment, and that theories change as new evidence emerges.

This is important in overcoming mistrust of science, distrust of scientists, and a movement away from understanding the importance of science to modern life, of its role in addressing issues of human health and welfare. We must address the ethics of the application of science in key areas, and how it ties to people’s core beliefs. It is a two-way street which needs to be traveled more frequently. It, also, will help to bring light — and less heat — to issues such as evolution versus intelligent design — the one a scientific theory rooted in experimental results, the other not.

What this really means is that the scientific community must understand that the nexus of science and public policy, inherently, means its nexus with public values. We must meet people where they live. Scientific perspectives will not prevail in all arenas, at all times, but we must engage, nonetheless.

Full text of the speech

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