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Shirley Malcom: “Renewing the Bond Between Science and Society”
Scientific progress may be slowed or stalled unless scientists can build a meaningful new relationship with millions of Americans and Europeans who feel fundamentally disconnected from their research and discoveries, said Shirley Malcom, AAAS head of Education and Human Resources.
In an address to the Communicating Science and Technology (CST) forum in Tromsø , Norway , Malcom cautioned that the disconnect could undermine support for science and technology among political leaders. She urged individual scientists, engineers and educators to act as ambassadors for their work—and to show the public the human side of their scientific endeavor.
From public opinion surveys in the United States and Europe, “it is clear that there is a need to address the large number of people who are unconnected to science, who explain this by complaining that they don't understand or don't care [and] those who express fear of the power of scientists,” Malcom said. “We must do a much better job of communicating the nature of science, the people of science, science as applied to human problems, as well as the limits of science."
“We need to share the passion that drives the scientists and help reduce the distance between them and the public.”
Malcom, regarded worldwide as an expert in science education, made the remarks during a plenary address to the Norway forum on 7 June. The conference, held 6-9 June, explored an array of issues related to science communication, media strategy and education.
Malcom focused on a seeming paradox: In both Europe and the United States, polls show great respect for scientists and engineers and broad support for government funding of research. Still, she said, there are troubling signs of a growing gap between science and engineers on the one hand, and policymakers and the public on the other.
In the United States, that disconnect is evident in public skepticism and controversy over evolution and “questions regarding possible ‘muzzling' of government scientists who conduct research on science topics that are politically sensitive, such as global climate change,” she said. And that polarization is fed by a news media that mechanically seeks “both sides” of a story, even though one side may be ill-informed or even when an issue is far too complex to cast as a two-sided contest.
There's a similar phenomenon in Europe, Malcom said.
Based on data from Eurobarometer studies, Malcom said, “we can see how the public views the role and responsibilities of scientists within the society. There is no desire to restrict the work of scientists, but there is the expectation that they behave responsibly. Most people agreed with the idea that there is a fear of the power that scientists have by virtue of their knowledge and that scientists put forth too little effort to inform the public of their work!”
She advised a sort of relationship counseling—but much of the onus for rebuilding the relationship falls on scientists, she said.
In a 2003 paper, American public opinion expert Daniel Yankelovich explored the science-society gap. He found that “while the sophistication of the tools and ideas of science have grown, this contrasts with the fact that the public's understanding has not advanced proportionally,” Malcom said. “He describes the differences in worldview, describing that of scientists as presupposing ‘rationality, lawfulness and orderliness' while ‘public life is shot through with irrationality, discontinuity, and disorder'.”
Better science education can not only help the public understand science issues, but give people more confidence in engaging with science and technological issues. Such education won't merely “move the public toward the scientists' worldview,” she said, “but instead…[would] increase the demand for information and accountability [and]…reduce the fear of interaction.” In short, she said, it would “empower the public.”
As head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, Malcom oversees an array of programs that serve students and educators. She was recently named to help lead the U.S. National Science Board's ambitious new Commission on 21st Century Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
Malcom has built a broad record of accomplishment and advocacy, and is regarded globally as a leader in efforts to improve science and engineering education and diversity in those fields. She has chaired a number of national committees addressing education reform and access to scientific and technical education, careers and literacy. In 2003, she received the Public Welfare Medal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the highest award given by the Academy.
Edward W. Lempinen
30 June 2006