US science’s primacy hinges on public regard, sector leaders say

Helping Americans understand and value science is vital to nation’s continued supremacy, conference hears

三月 1, 2020
Science class
Source: Getty

Leaders of the US scientific community celebrated the nation’s 75-year run of university-led global research dominance with a collective recognition that such success cannot continue without far greater levels of public appreciation.

Budget woes, discriminatory treatment of international scientists and weak interdisciplinary alignment are all important factors threatening the future of the nation’s academic research enterprise, the National Academy of Sciences made clear in a day-long policy conference.

But the failure to communicate research achievements and a diminishing public understanding of science presented the greatest risk, with the potential to completely undermine the enterprise over time, said Marcia McNutt, the president of the private, federally chartered National Academy. “We need to think of ways of inspiring people,” she told her colleagues.

The National Academy held the retrospective to remember the moment most widely considered foundational to modern US science – inventor Vannevar Bush’s successful post-Second World War campaign to make universities the chief venue for basic research and the federal government its prime funder.

This 75th-anniversary year finds the US still regarded as the world’s scientific leader − but there are concerns that its dominance is in jeopardy as other countries, especially China, catch up or surpass it in investment.

The National Academy of Sciences opened what is expected to be a series of such commemorations in 2020 by inviting top scientists, university leaders and White House and congressional officials to help it consider how the US can maintain its global position.

Key recommendations included far greater federal investment, more openness to foreign scientists and collaborations, better strategic coordination between US scientists and their government, and bigger professional rewards for working across disciplinary silos.

Even Trump administration officials acknowledged shortcomings. At a moment when the administration is raising fears in US academia of an open-ended crackdown on foreign partnerships, Chris Fall, the director of the Office of Science at the US Department of Energy, admitted unease.

“We all appreciate that shutting doors and shutting windows, in the long term, being in a defensive crouch, isn’t going to work,” said Dr Fall, who also served in the Obama administration.

That sentiment was echoed by Carrie Wolinetz, associate director for science policy at the National Institutes of Health, who said, “There is a risk to moving away from the open science system that has served us so well.”

And the president’s chief science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier, joined the applause as Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat of Maryland, faulted the White House for recommending in its latest annual budget that Congress sharply cut federal spending on scientific research.

But the event repeatedly returned to the need to confront the national apprehension over public trust in science and higher education. For all the reverence paid to the insightfulness of Vannevar Bush, his lack of attention to stimulating public comprehension now stands as a major deficit, the actor Alan Alda told the elite scientific assembly.

Mr Alda is best known for his starring role in the long-running television show M*A*S*H. But he has also employed his improvisational skills to develop course materials at Stony Brook University that have taught communication skills to more than 15,000 scientists.

Opinion polls, Mr Alda said, show that Americans respect science and find it interesting but increasingly regard it as “just another opinion” to consider. “And that’s a bit of a problem,” he said.

Another problem was scientists’ inability to communicate with each other, especially across disciplinary boundaries, Mr Alda said.

All in all, he and others argued, there were troubling signs that US science was not being directed towards the problems that the public considers most important.

Mahmud Farooque, a clinical associate professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, said he had success anticipating the development of autonomous vehicles as the result of visiting a rural community in Maryland and simply asking people what they wanted to see happen.

Hearing their concerns − such as emergency service personnel wanting to know how self-driving vehicle designs would affect their ability to rescue crash victims − could better inform and raise trust in the scientists developing such technologies, Professor Farooque said.

The process of public communication must become an integral part of the scientific process from the opening stages of assessing a problem, he said. “It’s hard to insert the society as we are doing the science,” he said.



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