Alan Leshner, Executive Publisher of Science, talks “Science and Society”

As part of the Undergraduate Research Conference, Alan Leshner, CEO of American Association for the Advancement of Science and Executive Publisher of Science, delivered a keynote address on the evolving relationship between science and society as a whole. Although Americans resoundingly acknowledge the vital role science plays in society, he contended, there are huge gaps in understanding between scientists and non-scientists over what science is, how it functions, and how much money it needs.

He dedicated his talk to two truisms:

Truism #1: The health of the scientific enterprise is embedded in and reflective of the broader society.

An increasing number of scientists (particularly young ones) view their work in terms of its practical considerations, and this is primarily why society supports research. Those who pursue their research only because it is interesting and provocative tend to be funded at similar levels to classical archaeology, Leshner joked. (For the uninitiated, most academic science is funded through federal grants.)

Because science as an institution is coming to terms with its pragmatic role in society, America is increasingly seeing more grants for high-risk/high-rewards research as well as a greater push for diversity in fields.

“The greatest progress in science comes from diversity,” Leshner said, referring to both demographic diversity and varied ways of thinking.

But of course, funding is always an issue, regardless of the field. In the past year, federal grant-giving institutions (e.g. NASA, NIH) are more likely to see less funding in efforts to balance the budget. Last year, almost across the board, science agencies’ budgets didn’t just not increase with inflation, they were cut. To the individual scientist, this translates to a longer interval between graduate school and their first grant (generally held as the measure of when a scientist’s career starts). Leshner said that he received his first grant at 25—now scientists with PhDs are having to wait until their forties to research independently.

However, this is mainly a problem for the individual scientists. From a macro perspective, the rate of publications is still rising, and the arrested development is manifesting in increased collaboration. Leshner said that Science barely receives any single-authored papers, and many of the submissions will have co0authors from different institutions in different countries.

Truism #2 Science and technology are ever more present in every aspect of modern life.

Most people realize that success in society requires a level of comfort with science and technology. Although the  majority of Americans respect science and scientists, most don’t know anything about the scientific process. And they don’t need to, Leshner explained. However, they do need to know what science is and what its purpose is. He then cited the trouble facts that 60 percent of American believe in extrasensory perceptions, and 47 percent reject evolution by natural selection.

In regard to national policy on science, 78 percent of Americans think that America should be the leader in every field, but a majority also believe that America will fall behind the rest of the world by 2020. In the past 20 years, China has taken the lead from America on the number of PhDs awarded in the sciences, and the EU leads the world in number of publications.

Leshner ended the talked with what scientists can do to better engage the public. First, he said that education is not enough—better science-society relationship come from individual engagement, meaning talking to non-scientists in small setting where extremists (on either end) can’t hijack the conversation.

Second, he to not talk down to non-scientists. Too often scientists enter into conversations with the attitude, “You wouldn’t understand my work,” which is self-fulfilling.

Photo: Lucia He

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