Science Leaders Urge New Effort To Strengthen Bonds with Public

SAN DIEGO—Public engagement is perennially a top issue for the global science and engineering community, but with political attacks against climate science escalating and polls reflecting a decline in public confidence, the issue has grown more critical. At the recent AAAS Annual Meeting, science leaders concurred that more effort and creativity are needed to meet the goal.

But at a press briefing on climate change, organized by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and AAAS, an eminent panel of science leaders made clear the complexity of the challenge. If science is based on reason and evidence, they asked, how should it respond when economic stress and a concerted campaign of distortion undermine the public’s belief in climate change and trust in science?

Lord Martin Rees

Climate change faces “special problems,” said Lord Martin Rees, the eminent cosmologist and president of the Royal Society. “It’s diffuse and international—you can’t do anything about it unless all nations move together. It’s also remote in time: The consequences will only impact seriously on the next generation, not us, which makes it very hard to get the public exercised on the need to do something.”

Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academies of Science and chair of the National Research Council, warned that rising public skepticism on climate change apparently has “spilled over into other kinds of science.”

The issue of public engagement was the central theme of the Annual Meeting, which convened here from 18 to 22 February under the banner “Bridging Science and Society.” In his invitation, AAAS President Peter Agre underscored the theme.

Building stronger bonds with the public requires “every scientist and engineer to make their work both beneficial and understandable, and... society to discover again the excitement and hope that research and its findings offer,” said Agre, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry. “It is a call to action that resonates around the world.”

A workshop in science communication was offered to scientists and engineers at the meeting. Some three dozen special briefings were staged for corps of U.S. and international science journalists. Thousands of people attended Family Science Days, plenary addresses, and other free public events.

But researchers recently have noted signs of a strained relationship with the public on several important issues—climate and energy, embryonic stem cell research, and evolution.

Those and other issues were addressed in three commentaries written by Agre and prominent coauthors and published by the San Diego Union-Tribune during the meeting.

“In an era of incredible opportunities and profound problems, our nation can only thrive if decisions are shaped by a science-literate public and well-informed policymakers,” Agre wrote with Alan I. Leshner, the AAAS CEO and executive publisher of Science. “Those may be the defining challenges for our research enterprise in the 21st century.”

Some at the meeting focused on a more immediate challenge: responding to the leak or theft of hundreds of e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit and the discovery of a handful of errors in the massive 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), including one that misstated the speed at which Himalayan glaciers are melting.

Critics have cited the e-mails and the errors in broad attacks against the validity of climate change research. Recent polls show that, in a matter of months, public belief in human-caused climate change has dropped sharply.

Jane Lubchenco

Former AAAS President Jane Lubchenco, now head of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told reporters the errors were an “embarrassment” and a “wake-up call” for the IPCC.

Then-AAAS Chairman James J. McCarthy, who served as a co-chair of an IPCC working group that helped produce the panel’s 2001 report, noted that some unfavorable public opinion is likely linked to the nation’s economic distress. But the IPCC errors should have been caught, he said.

“Our institutions are not as nimble as they should be in acknowledging... that we really do need to endeavor to make information more readily available and when errors occur, to correct them immediately and explain their origin,” McCarthy added at the AAAS briefing.

Cicerone agreed. “We have to address our fundamentals in any case as we continue to improve science,” he said. “So let’s do it, let’s introduce these improvements and... hope it will set a new level of transparency and potential trust.”