Science Leaders Urge Engagement in Policy at AAAS Meeting

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Publication date: 
24 February 2017

The American Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting in Boston last week. At the meeting, speakers discussed the policy and political challenges currently facing science, as well as the best means for scientists to engage with the policy process.

Last week in Boston, the American Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting, bearing the theme “Serving Society Through Science Policy.” That focus was chosen well before the November election, but the uncertainties accompanying the new Trump administration contributed to strong attendance at the meeting’s many policy-oriented sessions. Over the course of the meeting, speakers experienced in science policy acknowledged — and largely shared in —feelings among scientists ranging from trepidation to resolve.

Concerns include recent government actions, erosion of scientific authority

Introducing AAAS President Barbara Schaal, Brown University President Christina Paxson expressed dismay over communications restrictions at federal agencies and President’s Trump’s travel ban aimed at nationals of seven countries. She observed that, coming atop perennial concerns about science funding and a sense that society undervalues scientific knowledge, such events had “galvanized” the scientific community. In response, letters had been circulated, marches organized, and scientists encouraged to run for public office. “Clearly there is something going on. Clearly a line has been crossed,” she remarked.


Barbara Schaal greets the audience during her presidential address at the AAAS meeting.

Barbara Schaal greets the audience during her presidential address at the AAAS meeting.

(Image credit – AAAS / Atlantic Photography)

Used with permission from AAAS

In her address, Schaal lamented that “in the U.S. and across the globe over the past ten years or so there has been a feeling of concern that the entire scientific enterprise is under threat, that the position of science in the world is eroding.” She echoed Paxson’s concerns about the Trump administration’s early actions, and noted the administration’s “stunning silence” concerning unfilled science-related government posts. She urged,

These are not political issues. … Our concern is regarding the weakening of the scientific enterprise and the long-term harm to the nation and to the global output of science that might result. … In this instant, many of us feel that it is important to speak up, not as individuals with a political agenda — although all of us do have political opinions, of course — but rather as scientists advocating for policies that foster science.

Science leaders advocate widespread engagement with policy

Calls for the scientific community to engage with policy pervaded the meeting.  The most frequent refrain was that scientists should become more effective communicators of their work and of the value of science more generally.

There were also more pointed recommendations. In one session, Kei Koizumi, a AAAS visiting scholar and a former official in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Obama, encouraged scientists to take a broad view of science policy. He pointed out that everyone who receives federal funding represents “science policy in action,” and that opportunities to engage can be found not only in Washington, D.C., but also within universities and local communities.

In another session, John Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, said that scientists should become “more broadly informed about science and society issues” and repeated his longstanding wish that scientists “tithe” 10 percent of their time to public service, including policymaker education and political engagement. He also said that scientists should be “strategic” in their actions and coordinate their efforts.

At the same session, Jane Lubchenco, who led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during Obama’s first term, declared that the time has come for scientists to make “a quantum leap into relevance.” She implored, “Please don’t make science partisan,” and said scientists should engage in two-way conversations with businesses and the public. In another session, Bart Gordon, a former Democratic congressman who chaired the House Science Committee, suggested that the new administration would likely be more receptive to messages delivered by businesspeople than by scientists.

Another suggestion that Lubchenco supported was that academic culture should better reward political and social engagement. During a separate session, Bill Bonvillian, the recently retired director of MIT’s Washington Office, tepidly backed a similar proposal, but said more near-term thinking is vital. He remarked, “I wouldn’t call this an emergency, but the [fiscal year 2018] budget is going to put a lot of handwriting on the wall, I fear. … The budget will be released in May. The time is upon us and we’re going to need to start straightening out our messages between now and then.”

Disagreements exist over strategy and tone

While speakers at the meeting universally backed the idea of engagement, several stressed that scientists should adopt sound strategies and strike an appropriate tone. For instance, Kurt Gottfried, a physicist and co-founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists advocacy organization, rejected an audience member’s call to recognize that the U.S. had been taken over by an “authoritarian fascist government.” Gottfried recalled how as a child he had witnessed the Nazi takeover of Vienna, and said there was no comparison to the present. He warned against “overstating the case,” saying, “I think we damage ourselves by exaggerating that threat.”

A great deal of discussion has surrounded the March for Science, scheduled for April 22 in Washington, D.C. and other locations around the world. Anticipating the larger event, on Feb. 19 a crowd gathered at a rally in Boston’s Copley Square — near to, but unaffiliated with the AAAS meeting — to advocate on behalf of science and against threats to it.

Some have worried that such activities could become overly politicized or even rowdy. For instance, Jim Gates, a physicist who delivered a keynote address on evidence-based policymaking at the meeting, told journalists he is uncomfortable with the March for Science because it lacks long-term goals. He also said it could send the “terrible” message of “science against the president,” and that it would be difficult to “guard against provocateurs.”

The meeting’s other keynote speaker, Naomi Oreskes, a historian who researches disinformation campaigns against scientific consensuses, expressed a contrasting view. In her address, as well as at the Copley Square rally, she prevailed on scientists not to feel pressured into silence by the specter of politicization, not least because it would not guarantee their protection. She argued, “Science has not been politicized because [scientists] have ‘crossed the line.’ Science has been politicized as an instrument to undermine it, by groups and individuals who do not like what they see as the political implications of scientific findings.”


Jim Gates and Naomi Oreskes

The keynote speakers at the AAAS meeting, physicist Jim Gates and historian Naomi Oreskes, have expressed contrasting opinions about the dangers of politicizing science.

(Image credit – AAAS / Atlantic Photography)

Used with permission from AAAS

As debates over engagement strategies have continued, organizational support for the April march has been expanding. During the meeting, Rush Holt, the CEO of AAAS, told reporters that it would work to help “make the march a success.”

AAAS announced its official affiliation with the march on Feb. 23. In its statement, Holt is quoted as saying:

There is a great deal of energy associated with the March for Science, and I believe it’s important that organizers and the science-loving public who participate in related events around the world ensure they are positive, non-partisan, educational, and diverse.

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