National Academies Press: OpenBook

The Endless Frontier: The Next 75 Years in Science (2020)

Chapter: 4 Science and the Public

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Suggested Citation:"4 Science and the Public." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. The Endless Frontier: The Next 75 Years in Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25990.
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4: SCIENCE AND THE PUBLIC

In Science, the Endless Frontier, Bush “left out one element that I think is becoming known as a key element in how science thrives and flourishes,” said Alan Alda, an actor, author, science communication advocate, host of the podcast Clear+Vivid, and co-founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. That missing element, Alda said, is the communication of science. “In the next 75 years, we’re going to hear more and more about that missing puzzle piece.”

Polls show that the public respects science and finds it interesting, but science is increasingly regarded “as just another opinion, and that’s a problem,” Alda noted. To convey the true nature of science, scientists have to be good communicators, whether they are talking with each other, policy makers, or members of the public. That means not only translating scientific terms into lay language

but also engaging with people, which requires an empathic approach to communication. When he was hosting Scientific American Frontiers, Alda did not let his guests answer questions simply with mini-lectures. If he did not understand what they were saying, he

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From left to right: Cristin Dorgelo, President and Chief Executive Officer, Association of Science and Technology Centers; Elizabeth Christopherson, President and Chief Executive Officer, Rita Allen Foundation; Alan Alda, Co-Founder, Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University; Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School; Mahmud Farooque, Associate Director, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, and Clinical Associate Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University
Karen Sayre/Eikon Photography
Suggested Citation:"4 Science and the Public." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. The Endless Frontier: The Next 75 Years in Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25990.
×
Image
Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School
Karen Sayre/Eikon Photography

would tell them, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Tell me again.” That changed the relationship, he said. “It was dynamic. They were getting something from me. I was getting something from them. It went back and forth.”

According to Alda, this interaction is similar to what happens on a stage. “You don’t say your next line because it’s in the script or because you’ve memorized it. You say the next line because this other person has said something to you or done

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But “much less attention is devoted to how societal ideas can communicate themselves to scientists.”

—Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School

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“Who is posing the problems is one of the great unearthed questions in our society.”

—Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School

something that makes you say the next line and makes you say it a certain way. There’s a dynamic relationship.” With the scientists he interviewed, the audience was not looking at “a robed figure on top of the mountain. They were looking at somebody like them who was very smart and had something interesting to tell them.”

Alda realized that training scientists to have a personal connection with an audience could help them communicate better not only with members of the public but also with other scientists. With science involving ever more collaboration across disciplines, scientists have to communicate with people who have studied different subjects and with colleagues who are accustomed to different processes or have different ways of looking at an issue. “Collaboration is going to improve enormously with better communication,” he said. And because communication requires stepping back and looking at the big picture of their own work, scientists come to understand their own work better. “Science is going to get better even among scientists—I think, and predict, and hope—because of communication.”

In the previous panel, Leshner also emphasized the need for scientists “who want and are able to engage with the rest of society.” Young scientists need opportunities to communicate with scientists in other fields and with non-scientists while also receiving the training and support needed to communicate well. “If we don’t get them doing it early,” he said, “they’re not going to do it well.”

Suggested Citation:"4 Science and the Public." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. The Endless Frontier: The Next 75 Years in Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25990.
×

ImageCreating a Two-Way Conversation

Much of the conversation about public engagement has centered on how scientists can communicate their ideas better to members of the public, noted Sheila Jasanoff, the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. But “much less attention is devoted to how societal ideas can communicate themselves to scientists,” she said. For instance, STEM education is now a well-known term, “but we don’t have an equivalent abbreviation for what it might mean to put a modicum of understanding of policy, politics, and culture into the minds of every scientist.” Just as every educated person should have some understanding of the interactions among science, technology, and society, every scientist should have exposure and opportunities to engage with non-scientists.

Looking farther upstream than the results of research would enable deliberations over a separate issue: Where do problems come from? “Who is posing the problems is one of the great unearthed questions in our society,” Jasanoff said. “Why did we organize society such that these are the problems that came into being?” For instance, instead of lamenting the possibility that truck drivers will be put out of work by autonomous vehicles, why not ask truck drivers what their priorities would be for new technologies? “Maybe there are some dimensions of their work that they would want to be automated and maybe not.” Another example is asking patient communities about the kinds of changes affecting their conditions and circumstances that they would want from genome editing. Such interactions between science and the broader society would keep the research enterprise from “bulldozing over fundamental questions of identity, belonging, and the sense of community.”

Science, the Endless Frontier depicts science as a source of new knowledge that is handed off to others to adapt and develop. But this picture of science does not acknowledge the many ways in which the two are intertwined, said Jasanoff. “Scientists are in society, and society is in the sciences, so the interface metaphor that many people like is just not appropriate.”

ImageUp-Front Engagement

Public engagement was not part of the conversation 75 years ago, said Mahmud Farooque, associate director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and clinical associate professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University (ASU), nor was the question of how science can innovate not only for society but also with society. That requires having a conversation at the beginning of the scientific process, not at the end when the research is already done.

Though Bush was aware of the complications involved in innovation, the system he described in Science, the Endless Frontier is a linear path from science to society, which makes it hard to insert society into the science, Farooque observed. In contrast to this view, ASU established a process in which universities, science centers, and non-partisan think tanks come together to engage at

Suggested Citation:"4 Science and the Public." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. The Endless Frontier: The Next 75 Years in Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25990.
×

the beginning of the process and not at the end, looking at issues such as nuclear waste, climate change, gene editing, autonomous vehicles, and the future of the Internet. Though the network created through this initiative remains thin, it has become a replicable and scalable model of how to engage communities at the beginning of the scientific process, Farooque said. It enables co-creating the future as opposed to inhabiting the future that science creates.

“When we put community at the center, it’s a different problem that we are trying to solve, and then the conversation changes,” said Farooque. Such conversations benefit all parties engaged in them, including scientists. They identify questions or approaches not previously considered, provide new reasons for investing in research, and better reveal the value and potential of research. The result is more than just the co-production of knowledge. It is change in the culture of institutions.

ImageEmpowering the Public

The overall challenge, said Cristin Dorgelo, president and CEO of the Association of Science and Technology Centers, is to ensure that people have more agency in achieving their own priorities through science and technology. The federal government has been “very intentional about setting up an infrastructure for research in academia to support commercialization,” said Dorgelo. It has been “less intentional about building on models we have seen be fruitful for engaging more people in innovation and in building opportunity.”

Dorgelo said that she has been thinking about this issue since working on the federal Open Innovation portfolio, which is a problem-solving approach that seeks to gather and develop external ideas and solutions in addition to internal ones. Open and collaborative initiatives include citizen science, which uses democratized tools to enable non-scientists to do science, deliberative forums that inform the public and let it engage in the scientific process, and incentive prizes that

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…there are some things “that only the federal government can do at scale in terms of incentivizing all of us to change practices.”

—Cristin Dorgelo, President and Chief Executive Officer, Association of Science and Technology Centers

welcome innovators and entrepreneurs no matter where they sit.

Engaging the public in science requires building an infrastructure to harness the tools and the processes of answering questions and applying those answers in a way that addresses community priorities, not just the priorities of those inside the system, said Dorgelo. Building such an infrastructure can be done from the bottom up or the top down in different kinds of institutions, but there are some things “that only the federal government can do at scale in terms of incentivizing all of us to change practices.” For example, Dorgelo said that one practical step would be to overhaul the public comment process at federal science agencies. Another would be to leverage existing institutions for public engagement, including science museums, after-school programs, and other places where families gather.

Suggested Citation:"4 Science and the Public." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. The Endless Frontier: The Next 75 Years in Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25990.
×
Page 16
Suggested Citation:"4 Science and the Public." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. The Endless Frontier: The Next 75 Years in Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25990.
×
Page 17
Suggested Citation:"4 Science and the Public." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. The Endless Frontier: The Next 75 Years in Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25990.
×
Page 18
Suggested Citation:"4 Science and the Public." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. The Endless Frontier: The Next 75 Years in Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25990.
×
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The National Academy of Sciences hosted a symposium on February 26, 2020, that gathered top business, academic, and government leaders to explore whether the modern research architecture that fuels U.S. innovation needs to be reconfigured to meet the challenges of our time. The event was held in partnership with The Kavli Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to mark the 75th anniversary of the publication of Vannevar Bush's seminal report Science, the Endless Frontier, which created a blueprint for U.S. scientific research in the post-World War II era. Bush's report empowered government support for innovation and basic research at the nation's universities and the policies that ultimately drove U.S. prosperity, health, and national security. This publication summarizes the presentations and discussion at the symposium focused on the future of pathways to leadership in science, how to respond to changes in the research enterprise, science and the public, the evolution of the government-university partnership, and connecting basic research with economic growth in the decades to come.

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