AAAS—I told you so!
The meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) has wrapped up it’s annual meeting sounding the alarm that scientists have to fight back against anti-science in America. “It’s about persuading people to believe in science, at a time when disturbing numbers don’t,” said meeting co-chair Andrew Petter, president of Simon Fraser University in this western Canadian city.
Well, duh! Twelve years ago when George Bush was elected and the anti-stem cell campaign by the religious right was in full swing, I contacted the AAAS to suggest to them they needed to encourage scientists to get out and explain science to the public. I don’t have any connections inside the AAAS so I just sent an email to their PR department saying I thought scientists needed to get out of the labs more and do public communication as part of their role. I said the AAAS should be preparing scientists for public speaking and dialogue. I got back a reply that said if anybody wanted to know more about science they could subscribe to Science, the expensive, highly technical journal of the AAAS.
It pissed me off. There was a kind of arrogance in it. They seemed to be saying scientists are above the fray, and their job is just doing science, not engaging the illiterate public and dabbling in politics. Well, finally, they may be getting the message.
I don’t know whether to think: “Too little too late,” or: “Better late than never.” It’s both. I count myself lucky to have been in school in California when the Soviet Sputnik scared the crap out of Americans and thrust as many boys (yes, boys) as possible into science in school. I rode the fear-driven wave of generous tax money to a strong, relatively inexpensive education.
Coupling military science research with the riches of intellectual talent that the US got from Europe during the Nazi terror and then oppression many places, America became for a time the undisputed leader in science. (I was reminded by a Nova program last week that the American space program including the Saturn rocket that took US astronauts to the moon—largely a military adventure—was headed by Werner von Braun, the guy who developed the Nazi V-2 rocket program that damn near tipped the war back toward Nazi victory.) The era of greatest American science was fueled, in ample part, by the notorious “brain-drain” of the best and brightest from other parts of the world.
I mark the point at which the US jumped the shark in science at the refusal of Congress to fund the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas because it was too expensive for the budget. Sound familiar? The US cheaped-out on science leadership and now we’re steadily dropping in indicators of science achievement compared to strong committed countries like China.
Science may indeed be in trouble in the US because this is not a country that has ever really valued intellectual achievement and the remarkable knowledge that science brings. We like the comforts and conveniences it brings, but we heap riches on jocks and celebrities, not “egg-heads.” Nevertheless, science is roaring ahead. It is fully international and participated in by smart people all over the world. The Super Collider ended up as the CERN facility in Switzerland/France looking for the Higgs boson. China is making plans to go to Mars. Science will surge ahead along with the socioeconomic benefits of it in countries like China that have large populations of smart, hard-working young people who live in a culture that values education and the achievements that come from it.
It’ll be interesting to see if the calls for action at the AAAS meeting result in anything in this country. I rather doubt it. But things have a way of working out. If you value science, don’t worry. Science is happening in a big, big way, but perhaps not so much by your fellow Americans. While we’ve been thumping our chests about “American exceptionalism” others are really doing exceptional things at an ever increasing rate. Those who do the hard work ande those who support them will reap the benefits, and that’s as it should be, right?