Gerald Fink: Public Respects Scientists as "Problem Solvers"

Long-term, sustained support for science is necessary to solve 21st-century challenges, the incoming AAAS president said.
 
Gerald Fink said researchers and the public look to AAAS as "the voice of American science." | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

Incoming AAAS President Gerald Fink, a professor of biology at the Whitehead Institute, believes the general public does respect and depend on the solutions that science provides.

"Most Americans are very practical people, and they are also kind of amateur scientists," he said in a recent interview. "They want these problems like energy and global warming solved, and know that they can only be solved by scientists."

Fink believes that AAAS is a vital "connection between the wishes of the American people, to solve these problems, and the policymakers. AAAS is the voice of American science to the world, and it's not just scientists who listen to this voice."

This long-term, sustained support of science is one that Fink hopes the organization can continue to foster in Washington, D.C. But he also cautioned that the recent battles over sequestration have had "a very damaging effect on science, particularly on young scientists."

"When I was a student, I didn't worry that I wouldn't be able to get a grant or have my education supported. The government was forthcoming at every point," he said. "I don't know that we can look forward to that commitment, and more importantly, without it our young scientists cannot be optimistic about a career in science. But, we need their optimism and enthusiasm to solve the problems of the 21st century."

Fink turned to science in high school, after reading Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters, about pioneering scientists like Louis Pasteur and Walter Reed who built the germ theory of disease and developed the first vaccinations. "It was so exciting to me," he recalls, "but I went to a public high school that was not particularly good, and most people were interested in sports instead." So he and his best friend-now a mathematician-thought mostly about winning their next basketball game.

But the successful launching of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957 changed everything. Like many scientists his age, he remembers Sputnik as the impetus for an entirely new and exciting emphasis on science education. Spurred by this challenge, engineers and scientists began visiting schools to teach classes and to encourage students to choose a career in research.

Fink went on to receive his Ph.D. in genetics from Yale University. His 1977 discovery of a technique to introduce DNA into living yeast cells paved the way for genetic engineering in this organism and others, and helped establish yeast as "factories" for producing new vaccines and other medicines.

He will succeed Phillip A. Sharp as president at the close of the 180th AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago on 18 February. Sharp will become chairman of the AAAS Board of Directors.