Public Engagement with Science

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  14 Feb 2003:
Vol. 299, Issue 5609, pp. 977
DOI: 10.1126/science.299.5609.977

The theme of this year's American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting—“Science As a Way of Life”—speaks to both the science and engineering communities and to the broader public. The AAAS meeting draws hundreds of speakers whose work emphasizes the multidisciplinary nature of modern science and the role of science in society.

Few scientists (or their spouses) would contest the view that being a scientist pervades all aspects of their lives, professional and personal. But science is really a way of life not only for scientists but for all people, whether they choose it or not. Virtually every major issue facing global society today has science and technology components at its core: terrorism and other forms of violence, economic productivity, health status, global warming, and the need for sustainable development. History has shown that when individuals and nations lack infrastructure and access to science and technology, they are doomed to lag behind their better-equipped counterparts.

Some people are not so happy about how central science and technology are to their lives. Although in the United States the relationship between science and society is basically positive, science and technology often encounter skepticism and wariness in other parts of the world. In a recent address at the AAAS, Sir David King, science advisor to the British prime minister, reported the results of attitude surveys that showed substantial differences in the way people in the United States and the United Kingdom view science in general and certain issues in particular. For example, whereas Americans are basically positive about genetically modified foods, people in Britain are extremely wary. The British are supportive of therapeutic cloning, whereas Americans are mixed at best in their views. Differences also exist in attitudes to global climate change and policies to combat it.

One traditional response of the scientific community to what it views as a lack of appreciation or misinterpretations by the public has been to mount so-called public understanding or education campaigns designed to “enlighten” the populace, either about science in general or specific issues in particular. Some initiatives have been quite successful. Examples include campaigns about the dangers of air pollution and high blood pressure, and the negative health effects of smoking and lack of exercise.

But simply trying to educate the public about specific science-based issues is not working. Many science skeptics are already quite well educated, but they relate more to the risks of science and technology advances than to their benefits. Moreover, given the uncertainties in science, the best science-based strategy is not always as clear as we would like and as many in our community might claim. And widely publicized examples of scientific dishonesty, like the Schön case, or unacceptable scientific practice, like the Lomborg affair or repeated unverified claims of human cloning, are not only misleading but seriously erode the public's trust in science.

The centrality of science to modern life bestows an obligation on the scientific community to develop different and closer links with the general population. That convergence will help evolve the compact between science and society so that it will better reflect society's current needs and values. We need to move beyond what too often has been seen as a paternalistic stance. We need to engage the public in a more open and honest bidirectional dialogue about science and technology and their products, including not only their benefits but also their limits, perils, and pitfalls. We need to respect the public's perspective and concerns even when we do not fully share them, and we need to develop a partnership that can respond to them.

When tried, that kind of engagement approach has been highly beneficial to all parties. The National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) efforts to increase meaningful public participation in both its advisory and grant review processes has been hailed as a great success by both the public and the NIH leadership. The U.S. Army's research programs have had similar successes in bringing public representation into the peer review of their clinical research programs. Science-based regulatory agencies have learned that stakeholder consultation makes all the work go better.

To help forge this new relationship between science and society, the AAAS is now putting together a new Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. This center will include our expanding educational programs about science and technology but will also provide a new forum through which the critical dialogue with the public can more easily occur. By more fully engaging the public with science, its priorities, and its portrayal, we hope to make more meaningful the fact that, like it or not, science is an ever-more pervasive way of life for all people.

Stay Connected to Science

Navigate This Article