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Leshner: AAAS Must Engage Local Leaders by Communicating ‘Glocally’
Science communicators can increase their impact by working “glocally,” engaging with local leaders who help relay the message on global issues to their communities, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner told international reporters at a recent press breakfast.
Leshner spoke alongside Science News Editor Colin Norman and Washington Post Science Editor Nils Bruzelius during a 19 July meeting with policymakers and international science journalists sponsored the U.S. State Department Foreign Press Center.
The program, “Washington: A Capital of Science and Technology,” sought to help international reporters navigate the maze of federal authorizations and budgets, along with the myriad other organizations that play a role in funding and conducting U.S. science. While the three speakers touched on different issues, each offered their perspective on effective science communication in the U.S. and abroad.
“[While] we are living in the best of times … [some] things are not going so well,” Leshner stressed to the room of reporters. “We have seen a high rate of incremental advances and acceleration … [which] have led to new technologies that are enabling quantum jumps in understanding.”
While science has experienced large breakthroughs, especially in nanotechnologies and medicine, current events and an apparent rejection of fact-based methods for scientific evaluation have led to significant roadblocks.
Leshner separated the recent controversies into two general categories: issues internal to the scientific community and those between science and the society.
For the former, science has seen several highly visible incidents of scientific misconduct including fraud, conflicts of interest and violation of standards for testing on humans subjects.
Externally, the U.S. science community has been deeply affected by terrorism.
U.S. colleges, universities and laboratories have experienced difficulty recruiting scientists from several countries because of visa and other travel restrictions. Terrorism has also led to a reshaping of research priorities—with an increase in funding for bioterrorism prevention, cyber security and food supply safety.
While U.S. innovation has been challenged by events abroad, perhaps its greatest hindrance comes domestically from the perceived conflict between science and values.
According to many scientists, the resurgence of creationism under the guise of intelligent design and the lack of support for embryonic stem cell research in some political quarters fits into a larger trend that many find very troubling—the use of values, not science, to evaluate science and technology policy. Leshner pointed out that current U.S. administration’s objection to embryonic stem cell research was not based on potential scientific value, but rather religion.
“Now values are conflicting with science … before, costs versus benefits was the main axis of tension,” Leshner asserted.
Because scientific debate has become articulated in different contexts, along with the apparent failure of traditional methods to promote science, AAAS has undergone a “rebranding” to better meet the needs of society and the scientific community, Leshner said.
“We need to move from public understanding to public engagement. We need to talk with people, not at them,” Leshner said.
For Leshner, this means going “glocal”—that is, encouraging local leaders to engage their communities in finding solutions to issues of global importance.
AAAS has several programs acting “glocally,” Leshner said—town hall meetings on evolution, for example, efforts to publish newspaper commentaries in cities and states where intelligent design has been inserted into the science classroom, along with programs that publicly discuss science and religion such as Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion.
In addition, he said that with 25% of AAAS members coming from other countries, AAAS is a truly international endeavor. “To science, international boundaries are irrelevant,” said Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science
As Science news editor, Colin Norman directs a staff of 24 writers and editors with approximately 70 freelancers in cities around the world including Cambridge, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Bangkok and New Delhi.
The news section of Science was established in 1962 to cover the changing relationship between government and science. Norman was quick to point out that although Science is published by AAAS, it is editorially independent and does not function as an editorial voice for its publisher.
Norman said that he has been recently focusing on what he calls the “online challenge.”
“In 2005, we had 27 million full-text downloads,” Norman said. “In addition, we currently have 1,600 site licenses, 75% of which are outside the United States.”
Later in the meeting, Bruzelius stressed that while the number of readers who choose to get their news online increases daily, newspaper circulation is sharply decreasing.
The Washington Post currently has a Monday science news section, usually consisting of one large story with three small news articles. Bruzelius noted that the Post used to have a large bi-weekly science section, but it was deemed unable to sustain itself.
Within the past four years, the Post science section lost two writers to buyouts. With shrinking resources, Bruzelius often asks himself: “How do we rearrange the deck chairs?”
“[These] are hard times for journalists,” Bruzelius said. “The 1980s were the golden age for science news. [That’s] when the New York Times launched their science section.”
Echoing earlier speakers, Bruzelius said that in Washington, “science, politics, and government are intertwined. In D.C., it’s all-consuming.”
According to Jess Baily, director of the Washington Foreign Press Center, the purpose of the series is to help international journalists become aquatinted with science policy-makers.
“We try to broaden and deepen foreign correspondent's understanding of U.S. institutions and policies and thus improve their reporting about the U.S.,” Baily said. “Foreign audiences are very interested in science and technology, and it’s a subject in which there is much international cooperation.”
At the breakfast, there were 13 journalists from countries including Spain, China, Egypt, and Venezuela in a variety of media types.
9 August 2006