Audience for "Communicating Scientific Facts"

Communicating Scientific Facts in an Age of Disbelief in Experts

On May 18, 2017, the American Academy held a discussion, in partnership with the Carnegie Institution for Science, on “Communicating Scientific Facts in an Age of Disbelief in Experts.” Matthew P. Scott introduced the evening’s topic before handing the program to Jonathan Fanton. The discussion was moderated by Richard A. Meserve, and the featured speakers were Mary Sue Coleman, Alan I. Leshner, and Joe Palca.

The meeting served as the 2055th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, I am pleased to call to order the 2,055th Stated Meeting of the American Academy.

It is a particular pleasure to convene this program in partnership with Matthew Scott and the Carnegie Institution for Science. Since their founding, our two institutions have shared a common mission of advancing knowledge in service to society.  And several Academy members have served as Carnegie Institution scientists, including its first two presidents, Daniel Coit Gilman and Robert Simpson Woodward.

Woodward, in fact, served as the Academy’s delegate to the centennial celebration of the University of Virginia in 1921. In his report to Academy President Theodore Richards on June 13, 1921, he lamented that “Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and [Teddy] Roosevelt are the only, almost, American statesmen who had anything like a competent knowledge of science.”

The situation may have improved slightly since then, but I imagine most of us would agree there is still room for improvement.

The Academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and other leaders who helped to establish the United States. In the midst of the American Revolution, they believed the key to America’s long-term strength and survival was, in the words of our charter, “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

From the beginning, the Academy’s purpose has been not to simply honor excellence in a broad range of disciplines and professions. Its members also conduct studies of critical policy issues and debate the most pressing issues of the day.

A recent Academy report on science and engineering research, entitled Restoring the Foundation, is a good example. The report encourages a greater emphasis on long-range planning in the area of science and engineering.  It urges funders and policy-makers to provide more support for basic research that may not yield immediate results, but may ultimately prove transformative.

Several of the report’s recommendations found their way into the 2016 American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which was passed by Congress in December and signed into law in January. These recommendations, which echo those issued by other organizations, include reaffirming the value of peer review, reducing administrative burdens on university researchers, and streamlining the application process for federal research grants.

The Academy also has a deep interest in higher education.  Last spring, we released the report of our Lincoln Project that has examined the challenges faced by public research universities as states sharply reduce their funding.  Another Commission is now underway to look at how Americans receive their post-secondary education—examining the whole range of options, including community colleges, for-profit schools, and online providers. The Commission’s initial publication, “A Primer on the College Student Journey,” was released in September and presents a data-rich portrait of the opportunities and challenges facing American college students.

Of particular relevance for this evening’s program is a new Academy initiative on “The Public Face of Science,” which is examining the complex and evolving relationship between scientists and the public. This multiyear project is examining how public trust—or mistrust—in science is shaped by individual experiences, beliefs, and exposure to media reports on scientific discoveries, including digital media outlets. Activities include round-table discussions with Academy members and practicing journalists, as well as a series of shorter studies on how scientists are consulted during specific public policy decisions, such as court cases and natural disasters.

We are preparing to release the initial report from this project in the fall.  The report will examine the many interconnected factors that shape the public’s perceptions of science and their support for scientific research. A question of special interest to us is how public attitudes are shaped by encounters with science that occur outside of a formal classroom setting, such as museum visits, science festivals, and citizen science projects.

The public programs organized by the Carnegie Institution for Science are a leading example, and I hope our publication proves valuable to this remarkable institution as it continues its work to bring science to a broad audience.

In the Summer of 1974, the Academy published a special issue of its quarterly journal Daedalus titled “Science and Its Public: The Changing Relationship.”  The issue included an essay by the former Congressman Emilio Qunicy Daddario, who was at the time the Director of the Office of Technology Assessment.  Writing during the final year of Nixon’s presidency, and shortly after Nixon abolished both his Science Advisory Council and the position of Science Advisor to the President, Daddario observed that:

“… mere pronouncements, however true, on the virtues and intrinsic values of science will only evoke skepticism. Scientists have an obligation, during this period of reflection on the rise and fall of science policy in the executive branch, to speak out constructively on national issues and to help lay the groundwork for a new relationship of mutual respect and understanding that may someday be reestablished between science and the President.”

Written over forty years ago, these words have perhaps never been as relevant as they are today.

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