Passing the CEO baton

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Science  06 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6222, pp. 587
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa8081

As I retire from the office of chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and pass the baton to my very capable successor, physicist and former U.S. congressman Rush Holt, I have been reflecting on changes over the past decades both within the scientific enterprise and in its relationship with the rest of society. Many trends are cause for celebration, but others require remedial attention. On the positive side, new technologies have enabled new and very important scientific questions to be confronted, and a rise in collaborative, multidisciplinary science has fueled a remarkable pace of discovery. Science is also becoming more global in character as more countries invest in science and technology and fortify their infrastructures and science capacities. Science has never been more productive. And yet, the overall climate for science is more difficult than I have ever seen in my scientific career. This stunning state of contradiction indicates that there has never been a greater need, or a greater opportunity, for an international organization such as AAAS, whose mission is to advance science and serve society.

“…members have the potential to turn the tide and bring the full benefits of science to society.”


The pressures on the scientific enterprise are well known. In the United States, for example, federal support for research and development has fallen 16% in inflation-adjusted dollars from 2010 to the fiscal year 2015 budget request. The situation is similar in many other countries, although some emerging economies are enjoying large increases in science funding. At the same time, launching an independent academic research career has been taking longer, the result of constrained funding and a scarcity of jobs. For example, most U.S. investigators now get their first independent research grant when they are in their late 30s or early 40s. It is not surprising that many talented young scientists are abandoning the idea of a research career altogether.

Added to this, the relationship between scientists and the rest of the public seems to be slipping backward.* Climate change, genetically modified foods, and the teaching of evolution are among topics that now trigger unproductive tension in the fragile relationship between the scientific community and the rest of society. A weakened science-society relationship not only undermines public support for science but also makes it difficult for science to contribute to the solutions of societal problems. This is a no-win situation from every angle, and AAAS and many disciplinary societies have sought to address this problem through an array of public-engagement activities. These efforts include helping scientists to become better public communicators and providing forums through which scientists can work with members of the public on finding solutions to tension-provoking issues.

There have been many voices on this page over the years that have called for the scientific community to become more involved in nurturing a public that is receptive to science. As AAAS holds its annual meeting next week in San Jose, California, it is my hope for the organization that moving forward, all of its members and constituents will take this call to heart and continue to pursue ambitious goals, embrace a spirit of innovation, and work with the greater scientific establishment not only to tackle the most pressing problems of the day but also to build a societal culture that champions science and thrives on the rewards of strong science-society relations. AAAS members are an untapped source of influence. By responding to calls to be involved in advocacy efforts, volunteering to serve on advisory committees, and engaging with the organization to shape its future programs and initiatives, members have the potential to turn the tide and bring the full benefits of science to society. Rush Holt is an ideal person to lead this organization, and I pass the executive officer baton to him with great confidence.

  • * A. I. Leshner, Science 347, 459 (2015).

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