Barbara Schaal: Make the Case for Science as a Public Good

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During her presidential address on 16 February, AAAS President Barbara Schaal emphasized the importance of open communication and the free exchange of ideas for realizing the full benefits of science.| Atlantic Photography

BOSTON – Actions taken by the Trump administration to stifle communications at federal agencies and to ban travel from select countries “have been deeply troubling” to many scientists, said AAAS President Barbara Schaal at an opening presentation of the AAAS Annual Meeting.

The immigration and visa executive order and communications directive threaten key pillars of scientific practice, and could cause long-term harm to the global economy and the health of its citizens, Schaal noted.

“In this instance many of us feel that is important to speak up,” she said. “Not as individuals with a political agenda – although all of us do have political opinions, of course – but rather as scientists advocating for policies that foster science.”

AAAS is already seeing an upswing in researchers eager to add their voices as a force for science, said outgoing president Geraldine Richmond, who introduced Schaal. Richmond said that more than 9,000 new members have joined the organization since 1 January — a record-setting pace.

In her address to open the 183rd Annual Meeting, Schaal said that scientists and engineers must share the idea that “science is a public good.” From GPS navigation to nutritional lunches for children, science fuels “the things that improve our lives, that allow us to communicate and that give us convenience and comfort,” she said.

When it comes to realizing these benefits, Schaal cautioned that open communication, free exchange of ideas and the free flow of researchers across international borders are essential.

The impact of the now suspended travel ban has nonetheless been felt at the Boston meeting, Richmond said that computer engineer Rania Mokhtar of the Sudan University of Science and Technology, one of the winners of the 2017 Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World, will not attend the meeting to receive her award. Mokhtar’s accomplishment drew prolonged applause from the AAAS audience.

The delay in filling key scientific posts in federal agencies also has scientists worried, Schaal said, although the concern is less about the delay and more about the “silence” surrounding these positions, she noted.

Without these scientists in place, the government will lack the expertise necessary to craft policy decisions on matters from childhood nutrition to polluted water to cybersecurity, or to advise in crises such a disease outbreak or a nuclear power plant meltdown.

Schaal discussed how science can address challenges in her own field of agriculture, from coping with new plant diseases to increasing yields and nutritional content in the face of global climate change. She acknowledged that it can be difficult to explain how basic research fuels further applications and policies that directly benefit citizens. “It’s part of what makes science so easily marginalized.”

But good stories about science are everywhere, Schaal suggested, and should be told often. For instance, Albert Einstein’s theories about spacetime warping provide an essential calculation correction to GPS systems, she said. Without the knowledge of how traveling speed and gravity warp spacetime, minivans and aircraft carriers would stray miles from their destinations. And the sequencing of the human genome would have been delayed if not for researchers who were curious about how bacteria survive the boil of hot springs, leading to the PCR method of duplicating strands of DNA.

“We have an obligation as members of the science community to clearly communicate the value of science … It’s central to the function of government, to the well-being of its citizens, and to the overall health of the economy and the health of our planet,” said Schaal.