AAAS President William H. Press: Researchers Can Build on Public Support for Science

As the United States prepares for a year of election-driven partisanship, William Press points to something that many Americans share: a commitment to science. He cites polls showing that the public believes science is vital to a strong economy and international presence, and that scientists are trustworthy and prestigious citizens. The public also delights in the discoveries that come from all corners, from medical breakthroughs to breathtaking space missions.

William H. Press

William H. Press

With this in mind, the new AAAS president thinks voters will be very interested to hear what the 2012 presidential candidates have to say about their own plans for science. “There’s a broad segment of the American public that’s interested in science and innovation, both the beauty and benefits of it, ” Press said in a recent interview. “One of our goals should be to find ways to allow those things to move forward, and not have them brought down by things we can’t agree on.”

Press, a professor of computer science and integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin, said members of both political parties recognize that investments in innovation and education are vital to American success, and generally agree on the need to support basic research. When partisan arguments arise, he said, they reflect political and philosophical differences about government’s role in transforming basic research into applications.

However, he added, scientists must continue to “justify science as an essential investment in the future, not a frill to be postponed in each and every budget cycle.” He suggested that the scientific community “has been too passive in allowing the case for fundamental research to be framed in purely economic terms, often exemplified in narrow discussions of return-on-investment.”

He proposed that scientists should not shy away from speaking in visionary terms, making the case that basic and applied research can contribute to a future world marked by gains in education, an appreciation for the environment, rising incomes, and resiliency to global events like climate change and disease epidemics.

“Asserting this is not the same as proving it,” Press acknowledged, but he thinks AAAS is the “right organization to develop the broader and more rigorous justification for federal funding of basic and applied research that current times require.” Scientists and policymakers still cite presidential science advisor Vannevar Bush’s influential 1945 report, Science, the Endless Frontier to support federal science spending, he noted, “but the ‘use by’ date of that report and its many derivative reports may have expired with the end of the Cold War.”

While the organization as a whole can help to develop a 21st century blueprint for science policy, Press suggested that AAAS members can promote a stronger role for science in the public sphere by visiting congressional offices in their home districts. Although individual scientists may have partisan leanings, “science is intrinsically nonpartisan,” he said. “We can educate our members of Congress and their staffs on what we believe are the facts, and how certain we are about them.”

As a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) for the past two years, Press has played an active role in bringing science to bear on national policies. A noted researcher whose work has spanned a remarkable range of disciplines—from computer science to genomics, statistical methods, astrophysics, and international security—he also served as deputy laboratory director for science and technology at the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1998 to 2004.

Press succeeded plant biologist Nina V. Fedoroff as president when the AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, closed on 20 February. Fedoroff is now serving a one-year term as chairperson of the AAAS Board of Directors.

Fedoroff stressed the importance of international science collaboration during her presidency, and Press believes that AAAS should expand its strong programs in this area. He said the organization’s support for international science is a critical counterbalance against the notion that global collaborations are a “luxury rather than an economic necessity.”

“I’m a little worried that the message that international science is mutually beneficial could get lost, ” Press said, “in a time when the United States and other nations are in tough times and looking inward.”

Press noted that developing nations in particular have seized upon science as a way to transform their economies and increase their participation in world affairs. “We may be entering a period of decades when developing nations are on an upward trajectory, and we think science and technology can play an enormously positive role in supporting that trajectory.”

U.S. graduate school programs still attract researchers from around the world, he noted, but many organizations—including PCAST and AAAS—are offering ideas about improving undergraduate science education.

“We need to admit that we’re not doing a good job in those first two years” of undergraduate study, Press said. “People aren’t going to be attracted to science by a freshman course in which they’re just going to be sitting in a large lecture hall. But they are attracted when we can get them out into research laboratories and they see what research really is.”

He’s optimistic that the nation is poised to improve K-12 science education, citing bipartisan support for the National Academies’ 2007 report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which advocated strong investment in science and engineering education. Press also noted that many states now belong to organizations such as the nonprofit Achieve that support standards-based science education reforms like those promoted by AAAS’s Project 2061.

Press’s mother, Billie Kallick Press, was an educator who advocated for some of the earliest gifted programs in California schools, as the United States became more committed to science education in the years following the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957. His father, Frank Press, was a noted geophysicist and science advisor to U.S. President Jimmy Carter from 1976 to 1980. “I’ve always done science because it’s what I wanted to do,” Press said. “I’ve always seen it as this wonderful combination of having fun and benefiting the world.”

As an astrophysicist at Harvard University from 1976 to 1998, Press was best known for his collaboration on the Press-Schechter formalism, which predicts the masses of galaxies within the universe, as well as his work on supernovae to estimate cosmic distances, which helped clear a path to the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The power of computational science is the constant in his career, from his Numerical Recipes books on scientific computing and more recent projects in molecular biology and clinical trials.

“I had such fun, and was productive riding this wave in the physical sciences,” he said, “that I just could never forgive myself if I didn’t take the opportunity to stay on this same wave and do computational biology.”

Press’s eclectic interests make him an excellent ambassador for a message that he wants the public to understand: Science doesn’t proceed in a neat or linear fashion. Who could have predicted, he asked, that a probability distribution algorithm worked out by Google’s founders would become the backbone of a cultural and economic giant?

“When we have a national and global scientific enterprise that is out there building terrain,” Press said, “that can become fertile ground on which all kinds of applications can grow. ”

For Press, the beauty and the benefits of science are inseparable. “I think the more we can juxtapose those two ideas and show that they’re related,” he said, “the better we’ll do at making the case that we support it because it’s useful, and because it’s a part of who we want to be.”