AAAS President Shirley Ann Jackson: "The Nexus of Science and Society"
Shirley Ann Jackson
Photo credit: Edward W. Lempinen
American science and engineering have reached a "critical juncture," confronted by a mistrustful public and diminishing support from government despite countless life-enhancing achievements emerging from an era of discovery, AAAS President Shirley Ann Jackson said Thursday.
In a presidential address that formally opened the 2005 AAAS Annual Meeting, Jackson urged scientists and engineers to renew their commitment to public engagement and serving humanity, saying that the gains to be achieved outweigh the risk that some battles might be lost along the way.
"On issues ranging from genetic engineering and stem cell research to the search for weapons of mass destruction, our public discourse abounds with controversy-and the volume and passion of the rhetoric sometimes drowns the voice of science, itself," Jackson said.
"The war on terror, the uneven economic expansion of the recent past, and the U.S. federal budget deficit have weakened U.S. government resolve to invest in basic research and the development of scientific talent," she added. "This is happening just when we should be investing more-not less."
Jackson is a physicist and president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.; she became president of AAAS in February 2004, and, at the close of the annual meeting last month, moved up to become chair of the AAAS Board of Directors. She is the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from M.I.T. in any subject. Her research specialties are in optical physics; theoretical, quantum, and solid-state physics. Her interests include science and technology policy, and nuclear energy and regulation. She has built a record of accomplishment and service that today makes her one of the most influential figures in global science.
From 1995 to 1999, under President Bill Clinton, she was the first woman and the first African-American to serve as the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She also is the first African-American woman to lead a national research university, the first to lead AAAS, and the first to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering. She also is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and member of the Board of Directors of the New York Stock Exchange.
Her presidential address at the Annual Meeting explored many of the issues that she has worked on through her career, from national security and risk assessment to public engagement by scientists and the nation's need to encourage more young people, especially underrepresented women and minorities, to enter the fields of science and engineering.
In describing the landscape where science and society come together in the early 21st century, Jackson detailed the convergence of four critical trends:
Multidisciplinarity. The increasing collaboration of scientists across traditional disciplines is producing significant advances for science and humanity, she said. Among several examples, she cited scientists at Johns Hopkins University who have developed a self-assembling protein gel which stimulates biological signals to quicken the growth of cells. "Using a combination of cells, engineered materials, and biochemical factors, the gel can replace, repair, or regenerate damaged tissues," she said.
Globalization and National Security. "It is natural that, as a country at war, the U.S. has been focused on making the greatest investments in the areas of most immediate vulnerability, and increasing homeland security," Jackson said. "These actions, however necessary, also have been costly, and our focus on these immediate priorities may have been at the expense of other, more subtle aspects of security."
She urged that the United States realize the links between security and sustainability, recognizing the huge disparity between our nation's wealth and the poverty that persists in the developing world is itself a source of threat.
For the science community, "this requires broadening our focus, entering the policy debates as they apply, globally, and having our professional institutions focus in this way," she said. "A primary challenge of the developed world is to deal with terrorism and destabilization by dealing with their causes-primarily in the Third World. Fundamental research, and the innovations which derive from it, give us a way to do this directly, with benefits accruing to all, particularly as they relate to food, health, infrastructure, and environment."
Workforce and Education Trends. Another profound but subtle threat to national security is the aging of the science and engineering workforce and the challenge of replacing retiring professionals at a time when young people are less interested in these fields. In part because of restrictive immigration policies imposed after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, the number of foreign science and engineering students and workers is down sharply; at the same time, countries such as China, Taiwan and South Korea are dramatically increasing their investment and opportunities for aspiring scientists.
Individually, each of these factors would be "problematic," Jackson said. "In combination, they could be devastating."
As one key to the solution, she urged that the United States nurture and recruit young scientists and engineers from every cultural group and class. She cited two examples from Princeton, N.J.: The Institute for Advanced Study recruited Jewish scientists, including Albert Einstein, who were fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s and '40s; and Princeton University's employment of John Nash, the Nobel laureate in economics who pioneered game theory.
Nash had suffered debilitating schizophrenia early in his career, but after many years, made a remarkable recovery. His story has been documented in the book "A Beautiful Mind" and in a subsequent movie by the same name.
"Nash's story," Jackson said, "is filled with individuals and institutions which accepted his unique diversity, and made every effort to enable him to continue to work.
"Talent resides in many places-sometimes unappreciated or under-appreciated," she continued. "The very group or individual a society may ignore or neglect may be the very group or individual which makes the greatest discoveries or achieves the greatest innovations. We have made such mistakes in the past. We should not make them again."
Multiple Voices. The rise of round-the-clock news media and talk shows, the growth of think tanks, the increasing sophistication of marketing and the dawn of the Internet have combined to turn the marketplace of ideas into a storm of conflicting and confusing voices.
"What happens when the market place is populated with self-proclaimed experts?" Jackson asked. "When we have instantly available authorities to support every view? The result is the devaluing of information, and even the devaluing of science. This trend threatens the concept of the scientist as the dispassionate, objective voice of reason-and, also, the authoritative role of science in helping to shape sound public policy."
The result is a "nexus of distrust," she said, and she urged that the individuals and institutions of science and engineering commit themselves to restoring balance.
She called for "a full-fledged national commitment to invest significantly, competitively, and deeply in basic research in science and engineering across a broad disciplinary front," and for a "national focus and commitment to develop the complete talent pool."
Further, she said the scientific community "must engage on key public policy issues in a consistent, pro-active, not reactive way."
"Public policy is not always- perhaps, not often-an ideal forum for fair debate," Jackson said. "It is a roiling marketplace where every voice has its own agenda, and where an issue can become veiled and confused. But, it is a public marketplace for ideas, it is democratic, and it is open. Of course, the public and our political leaders must be willing to listen. There needs to be greater awareness and greater respect for scientists and the role of science in resolving critical national and international issues."
And she urged discipline-specific scientific and engineering professional societies to follow the lead of AAAS in engaging with the public. The key, she said, is that the outreach "must help people, not only to see the fun of science, but also to understand what science is, what a scientific theory is-as opposed to belief."
By following this broad course of education, capacity-building and "respectful" engagement, she said, "we can heal rifts, address rising expectations worldwide, insure our security by helping others to feel secure, and usher in a new 'golden age of scientific discovery'."
On Monday, at the close of the annual meeting, Jackson will become chair of the AAAS Board of Directors. The new president will be Dr. Gilbert S. Omenn, a professor of internal medicine, human genetics, and public health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Last year, Omenn received the prestigious John W. Gardner Legacy of Leadership Award from the White House Fellows Association.
Read the full text of AAAS President Shirley Ann Jackson's speech here.
Edward W. Lempinen
17 February 2005