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President's View
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Science and the Global Marketplace

The following is excerpted from my keynote address “Science and Society: A Nexus of Opportunity,” which I delivered at the conference Science+Society: Closing the Gap this January in Boston. The conference drew more than 1,500 educators from 34 states and 20 countries to explore the importance of science in national and international issues and to consider strategies for improving science literacy among young people and the general public. At the conference I shared the stage with former Vice President Al Gore, who delivered the other opening keynote address.

The world has undergone extraordinary changes within the lifetimes of everyone in this room — most brought to us through science and technology. The world has become smaller, human societies bump against each other, the global economy is expanding.

The changes have brought unprecedented challenges to our nation and to our world — changes that demand the most potent innovation, if they are to be resolved. I contend that the changes and the challenges — when fused with discovery and innovation — will offer unmatched opportunities. I am an optimist.

But, how are we to get there? How are we to think about the challenges before us? How are we to close the gap between science and society?

Of course, there cannot be society without science — or vice versa. They are integral. There should be no gap. Our challenge, today, is to think in new ways and map new paths to erase the sense that there is a gap.

For context, I pose a simple metaphor — the marketplace, or what classical Greece dubbed the “agora.” The agora was the heart of ancient Athens society. Interactions occurred, there, between people and all societal sectors — government leaders and legislators, commercial, administrative, political, academic, and social activity. The agora provided a religious and cultural center. It was the seat of justice. The agora was the societal nexus.

Our contemporary agora includes these — and more: professional societies, unions, think tanks, commercial marketing, the media, the entertainment industry — and science and technology. And of course, we have the Internet — an engine of information and disinformation without equal. Global in its reach, staggering in its power, it is transforming the Age of Information. The agora — then and now — is where the public selects its “truth,” where society accepts what it will regard as “fact,” where leaders make public policy decisions.

What happens when the agora is populated with self-proclaimed “experts,” with “authorities” supporting every view? The result is the devaluing of information — the devaluing of science. The trend undermines the scientist as the dispassionate, objective voice of reason, and weakens science as the authority for sound public policy.

On issues ranging from genetic engineering and stem cell research, to the value of conservation and the reality of global warming, our public discourse abounds with controversy — and, the volume and passion of the rhetoric sometimes drowns the voice of science itself.

How, then, are we to educate students for leadership in the global marketplace? How do we instill the capacity and the motivation to address the global asymmetries?

We want our students to acquire a multicultural sophistication, an intellectual agility, and enough knowledge of science and technology to enable them to take what they know and to apply it in diverse arenas. Innovation needs this cross pollination. A global experience — either through semesters of study abroad or by utilizing the Internet for cooperative, collaborative projects — is becoming an essential part of a robust educational experience. As for broader public education and appreciation of science, the scientific community itself, through its professional societies, must engage the public and make science more accessible.

It can help 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.

Science-rooted government agencies and businesses have an educational responsibility, as well, to speak in plain language to support public understanding of science and to support scientists speaking about their work. This is important in overcoming mistrust of science, distrust of scientists, and a shift away from understanding the importance of science to modern life. It is important, also, that we 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 to bring light — and less heat — to issues.

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

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