AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner: A New Vision for Science Engagement with the Public

Scientists must seek a new, more energetic engagement with Americans if they are to overcome public skepticism on issues ranging from climate change to stem cell research, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner writes in a commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner

AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner

Leshner’s opinion piece, “Science and Public Engagement” (10 October 2006), cited a growing tension between science and society, resulting in part from moral objections to embryonic stem cell research or evolution and lack of understanding of the nature of science as an enterprise. But rather than wishing the public understood and calling for more education, scientific organizations and individual scientists must take a more personal and proactive interest in reaching out to the public, he said.

“Simply lamenting the tension or protesting attacks on the integrity of science and science education won’t work,” wrote Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science. “We’ve been doing those for decades, if not centuries, and, as the saying has it, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

“Instead of simply increasing public understanding of science, scientists need to have a real dialogue with members of the public, listening to their concerns, their priorities, and the questions they would like us to help answer. We also need to find ways to move science forward while adapting to their legitimate concerns.”

Leshner listed a number of important lessons for science as it moves toward a more constructive public engagement, including:

  • Never pit science against religion;
  • Never debate a known ideologue;
  • Be clear about the nature of science; and
  • Listen.

“The most important-and most difficult-lesson to learn,” Leshner wrote, “is that public engagement involves genuine dialogue, which means both parties must listen and be willing to modify their own positions.”

To read Alan I. Leshner’s full commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education, click here.