Galvanized by what they see as unprecedented threats to scientific progress, researchers gathered at the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting to craft and share strategic plans to connect science and policy around the globe.
In Boston, attendees expressed a diverse set of worries about the future of science, stemming in part from their fears about how the new presidential administration in the United States will curtail research spending, international scientific collaboration, and a respect for fact-based policy-making.
In response, the meeting featured symposia and workshops that encouraged scientists to build positive relationships with policymakers at all levels of government, and to narrate better how science serves the public.
Many speakers—from senior science policy leaders to early career researchers—said that the days when a scientist or engineer could ignore policy-making are over.
“We have an obligation as members of the science community to clearly communicate the value of science,” said outgoing AAAS President Barbara Schaal, speaking in her plenary address to the meeting. “It's central to the function of government, to the well-being of its citizens, and to the overall health of the economy and the health of our planet.”
In town hall–style discussions about the best ways to communicate science, sessions covering the top levels of science policy in countries from New Zealand to South Africa, and several informal meet-ups, attendees sought advice on taking a more active role in policy.
AAAS in partnership with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation released a new report at the meeting detailing some of the most productive ways for scientists to engage in the policy environment, based on a global analysis of programs like the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, which physically places scientists and engineers in the policy environment.
The report called for better recognition of the civic contribution of scientists and engineers who engage with policy-makers, and better institutional support “to engage and nurture a new generation of scientists around the world to meet current and future demand” for scientists capable of navigating between science and policy.
Scientists must think more strategically about policy, especially in the face of potentially severe cuts to government R&D funding, said speakers discussing science budgets under the Trump administration. Universities and research institutions, for example, must make a stronger case for their relevance in solving some of the social problems that came to the fore in the 2016 election, such as unemployment and declining middle-class wages, said William Bonvillian, the director of MIT's Washington, D.C., office.
“We need to examine and work on challenges like quality job creation, the future of work, education, and training that can reach more in our society with the skills they'll need to move themselves up,” said Bonvillian in a meeting press conference. “We need to start getting policy solutions out on the table.”
“There are a wealth of really amazing solutions that are bubbling up all over the world, but we don't do a good enough job telling the story about those solutions,” agreed former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, speaking in a session about scientific integrity. “We need to do a much better job of demonstrating—not just asserting—the role and importance of science.”
While some at the meeting were focused on influencing national policy, others looked for more local opportunities. Alex Turo, an Ohio State University plant biologist, is concerned about the new administration's scant support for climate change research. “But I decided to do something constructive and also specialized to my field, so I have joined my local chapter of the Sierra Club and I am now doing advocacy with them, because I think effective conservation is local,” he said. Turo is answering science questions posed by chapter members about genetically modified crops, among other topics.
The local approach may be more useful in tackling policy problems such as climate change that generate political controversy, said Amy Luers of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, speaking in the integrity session. “For scientists to maintain our relevance in this post-expert world, it will be important for us to actively seek out and create conversations with communities around the nation.”
At the same time, scientists' insistence on expertise, evidence, and testing is an important part of what researchers can offer policy-makers, “and they should not check those principles at the door” when they work on policy issues, said plenary speaker S. James Gates Jr., a former member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes, in her plenary address, said scientists should take up the “sentinel” role, sharing with government officials and others what their data show and offering possible solutions to science-based problems.
There is historical precedent for this role with physicists like Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Hans Bethe, she noted, who spoke out about nuclear proliferation in part because of their “uniquely vivid appreciation and understanding” of nuclear weapons.
“There's little evidence that embracing a public role per se undermines the credibility of the scientist involved,” said Oreskes. “And I think as scientists, we should base our choices on evidence, not fear.”
AAAS Annual Election: Preliminary Announcement
The 2017 AAAS election of general and section officers will be held in the fall. Names may be placed in nomination for any office by petition submitted to the Chief Executive Officer no later than 31 May 2017. Petitions nominating candidates for president-elect, members of the Board, or members of the Committee on Nominations must bear the signatures of at least 100 members of the Association. Petitions nominating candidates for any section office must bear the signatures of at least 50 members of the section. A petition to place an additional name in nomination for any office must be accompanied by the nominee's curriculum vitae as well as a statement of acceptance of nomination.
Jonathan Mingle contributed to this article.