Anniversary Reflections

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Science  19 Aug 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5738, pp. 1153
DOI: 10.1126/science.1118183

Last month, we marked Science's 125th birthday with an issue that celebrated the great open questions that advance science. We have pondered with interest the various responses to our anniversary edition, and here we offer some reflections, as some of the comments get to the heart of larger issues. A quick review of what we did: The top 25 “Big Questions” facing science were selected by a long and sometimes exhausting conversation among our News and Editorial staffs, with input from our Board of Reviewing Editors. To arrive at the anniversary number of 125, we added 100 slightly less central ones and also used the EurekAlert! Kids' Portal to find out what questions youngsters were asking.*

There were welcome compliments on our choice to emphasize questions rather than answers, and some thoughtful speculations on how long getting the answers would take. The children, in particular, produced some fascinating responses: Can black holes suck up stars? Can artificial life-support systems sustain human life on hostile terrains? How is nature better than technology? There was also praise for the opening essay by Tom Siegfried that reflected on the major questions in physics and biology that were influenced by what was happening in 1880, when our first issue was published.

There were some complaints about the Milestone Poster produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) business office, one pointing out that it failed to pay adequate attention to non-Western achievements. The most troubling comments for me, however, were objections from two female scientists to the absence of women among the photographs associated with the Siegfried essay—concerns surfacing just when the issue of women in science has become a topic of intense and sometimes corrosive discussion in the academic community.


Where do we stand now in representing our enterprise to the children, women, and minority scientists who seek entry? The practice of science in 2005 is very different from what it was in 1980, our last anniversary. More research is being done by more people, working in increasingly larger teams, with tools that were undreamed of two decades ago. To illustrate: The average number of authors per paper in this anniversary issue was 12, with a range from 2 to 50. Exactly 5 years earlier in the issue of the corresponding date, the average number was only 4, and no author list was in double figures.

Thus, more people are working, and working together, in a tight job market when funding is harder to get. And young scholars entering universities—especially women—are not choosing science as frequently as we would wish. Our 25 Big Questions emphasize that this is a time of great intellectual opportunity in science. These are the best of times; so good, indeed, that we must act now to brighten the prospects for future scientists. In this work, there is surely a role for governments in making more support available and making good science an important political priority. But there is also a role for the community itself. We need to inspire kids—those who wrote to us and beyond. We simply can't afford to leave out any fraction of the eligibility pool.

That means that we must make special efforts to make science more attractive to women by strengthening incentives for undergraduate women to undertake doctoral work, and by ensuring that there are highly visible women in science leadership positions to demonstrate what is possible. On p. 1190 of this issue, Jo Handelsman and a distinguished group of senior academic women scientists provide exactly that sort of demonstration. They step around the minefield of largely discredited intellectual differences and provide a rich assessment of the cultural issues that may discourage women.

Finally, I refer back to the comments of the two distinguished women scientists mentioned above, one of whom is a close colleague who was civil but unsparing in her candor. They are right in that we missed some opportunities in our anniversary issue; for example, we should have used a picture or description of Marie Curie as one of those pathbreaking 19th-century scientists. Handlesman et al. point out that people “who are committed to egalitarian principles and believe that they are not biased may nevertheless unconsciously or inadvertently behave in discriminatory ways.” A good reminder for all of us, your editors included.

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