A Personal Perspective on Science; The AAAS President’s Address at the 2017 AAAS Meeting

By Adriana Bankston posted 27 days ago


This post was originally published on the Academics for the Future of Science (AFS) blog on July 23, 2017. Re-posting with permission from AFS.

As an introduction to this session, Dr. Geraldine Richmond (Presidential Chair in Science and Professor of Chemistry, University of Oregon) first spoke of the AAAS meeting as being an interdisciplinary meeting, and of global nature. To this latter point, Richmond‘s assertion that “science depends on openness, transparency, and the freeflow of ideas and people” is a crucial statement to how we should be doing science today. It also highlights the possibility of science to unite people from all over the world and to permit an open dialogue about science. 

Unfortunately, as Richmond also stated, “what scientists do is increasingly undervalued,” and this needs to change. We need to increase the value of science and think of the most effective ways in which this could be achieved. One possible way that comes to mind is from a statement by Dr. Christina Paxson (Brown University President), which is that we want “the best brightest most diverse thinkers from everywhere” to stay in science. Indeed, one of the messages reiterated multiple times during this session was that science is global, that foreign-born researchers make a valuable contribution to the scientific enterprise, and that we must all work together to ensure the sustainability of science. 

As someone who is interested in making change in science so that all of these things are possible, this was one of the most inspirational talks I’ve ever heard about science from the AAAS President Dr. Barbara Schaal (Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis). Whereas her crucial ideas about science were statements that the audience present there already likely agreed with, these are very useful reminders for how we can promote the value of science both within the scientific community and to the public. Below, I list these ideas in bold and offer my own perspectives in the comments in terms of what these ideas mean for science in general. 

We need the entire scientific community to have a voice: This statement cannot be emphasized enough, and should include scientists from all over the world, including foreign-born scientists who are currently doing science in the U.S. This is a particularly important point for us at Future of Research, as we are advocating to include junior voices in the conversation, and we also support the idea that science is global and all underrepresented populations should have a voice in how we do science. 

The case for basic science has to be made clearly and repeatedly: Although most obvious to the present audience, this is something we should emphasize to the entire scientific community, especially those who are more likely to be interested in or fund translational research. As we all know, but should state once again, basic research is what lays the foundation for major scientific findings. Not only that, but history shows us again and again that seemingly simple experiments performed by a scientist to satisfy his/her own curiosity can lead to unexpected breakthroughs. Therefore, basic science is critical to the entire scientific enterprise. In addition, we should also emphasize its importance for the general public, whose support for science is also essential.

How can we keep technologies going?: While this is a relatively vague question, we must consider how to continue innovating in science. We should encourage scientists to read up on and question the findings of others before them, and think about whether those innovations could be improved upon. This also requires scientists today to be familiar with the history of the field they are studying, which is not always the case. We should also keep science in the public eye, in order for scientists to be visible and increase their credibility. Finding out what the public needs or would like to see developed by scientists may spark ideas for scientific innovations that we haven’t previously considered. 

We need to put an end to policies not aligned with means: This statement was roughly in regards to providing support for the most talented individuals to drive the scientific enterprise. Currently, foreign-born scientists still experience difficulties in terms of being able to perform science in the U.S., due to various restrictions. We need to provide them with the means to perform science in the U.S., and, if necessary, update national policies to be more inclusive and allow them to participate in research. In a broader context, we should ensure that the policies we want to enact are doable and the necessary resources to carry out specific actions within these policies exist.  

How do we support science?: This was a broad question brought up by Dr. Schaal, and her recommendations included multiple items shown in the slide presented here. While all of these recommendations are critical to advancing science, I would like to emphasize the last point related to the conduct of science. Communicating science is a skill that is just now being regarded as valuable, and scientists need to be trained in this skill (as well as many others) if we are to ensure the long-term sustainability of science. The other point under this is science without borders, which I also believe should be highlighted more – we should be more inclusive, more tolerant of diversity, and more cognizant of the fact that a large part of the biomedical workforce is made up of foreign-born researchers. Just as U.S. scientists train abroad to gain new skills, so, too, should we welcome immigrant scientists to our country and allow them to exercise their scientific prowess.

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Items discussed during Dr Schaal’s presentation (photo by Adriana Bankston)

Our concern is regarding the weakening of the scientific enterprise: This is probably one of the most poignant statements from Dr. Schaal’s talk for me personally, because the sustainability of science is something of great interest (and concern) for me. As echoed multiple times during this talk, as well as from my own perceptions, the scientific enterprise can only function if we include foreign-born researchers and allow them to pursue science in the U.S. In addition to this, I also believe that many other systemic changes need to occur in order for science to be sustainable long-term.

Science for policy: speaking truth to power: This point refers to using science to drive policy, and convincing for example political leaders of the importance of science. Here I would like to also argue that we need better “policy for science,” which refers to advocating for science and better scientific practices both to and for scientists.

Our goal should be the use of science for the betterment of humankind: This is (or should be) a point of common sense, but is unfortunately one that scientists don’t often think about, as they are most of the time buried in their own experiments at the lab bench. Scientists need to think more broadly about how their findings affect other people in their lab, other scientists, the public, and the scientific enterprise as a whole. Ultimately, our goal should be to make scientific discoveries that are truthful and can satisfy our own curiosity, but also should be able to positively impact the world around us, and improve something for someone else. If we think of our science with such a broader goal in mind, our work at the bench will then hopefully gain deeper meaning.

Science is a public good, and we need to speak up for science: Similar to above, we need to think about how we can use science for doing something good in the world. Also, scientists need to be speaking up for science – even if they often think that this is not their job or responsibility to do. Hopefully this perception will change as more scientists advocate for science in various ways in the future. Ultimately, if we can use our science for the public good, and if we speak up for science both within the scientific enterprise and to the public, we will have made a valuable contribution to society as a whole. 

This post is part of a series of articles by guest blogger Adriana Bankston, where she will look back at workshops from the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Boston.

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