Young Researchers Share Ideas on Impact and Practice of Science at STGlobal Consortium Conference

From software piracy and transhumanism, to pandemic influenza and public school music curricula, the topics of the papers presented at the STGlobal Consortium’s Science and Technology in Society conference ran the gamut of science policy-related issues.

That is precisely the point of this meeting, said Ed Derrick, chief program director of the AAAS Center of Science, Policy, and Society Programs. “We’re quite interested in how science and science studies get done, and we want to encourage various frames of reference,” he said. “This conference gives students a chance to come and put in a different context what they’re working on and perhaps benefit from some cross-fertilization.”

The conference, hosted by AAAS and the National Academies on 5-6 April, was the 13th organized by the STGlobal Consortium, a group of graduate students from five universities. The meeting was created to encourage interdisciplinary discussion among researchers who focus on various policy and social aspects of science and technology. About 35 students presented research that focused technology and education, energy, health, the environment, information technology and other topics.

Participants like Lauren Senesac, a Ph.D. student in sociology at Princeton University, found that the feedback she received during her presentation on collaborations between professional and amateur biologists helped her to think about her dissertation in new ways. The theme of innovation also took center stage during a keynote address by innovation expert Robert Atkinson, who spoke at AAAS on the conference’s first day.

To ensure the United States remains a world leader, the country’s government and business heads need to invest more heavily in basic and applied research, said Atkinson, who is the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

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Robert Atkinson

“Back in the 1960s, the United States government itself funded more research than the entire world combined, including both public and private research,” Atkinson said. That funding began dropping off significantly after 1987, though, so that today, $110 billion less is invested in research than would have been had funding levels stayed the same as in the 1960s, he said.

“Historically, U.S. companies were the global drivers of innovation,” Atkinson said. “They invested the most in R&D. They took the biggest risks. And that has begun to shift over the past decade.” The United States has become the only country whose businesses are shrinking their funding for basic and applied research, research that leads to innovation and potential gains 10 to 15 years later, he said. Instead, they are now putting more money into development, which generates short-term profits by taking market share from competitors.

Innovation is a slow process, Atkinson said. It’s “incredibly risky” for private companies to invest in new ideas, because they have to take a chance on an idea that may not produce a working product, or a product that the market will buy. The potential profits must to be high enough to make it worth the risk, he said. Innovation can be encouraged with policies that support knowledge creation and ensure that there will be as large a market as possible for new innovations, he said.

Some of the plenary attendees said they are more cautious about supporting innovation than Atkinson. “Not all innovation is a blanket good,” said Crystal Allene Cook, a Ph.D. student in Science, Technology and Society at Virginia Tech. “Some innovation benefits corporations, but at the expense of jobs and the environment.”

Also speaking at the meeting were David Brin, scientist and author of the novel “Existence,” and Frances Colón, Deputy Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State at the U.S. Department of State. Colón, gave the keynote address on the conference’s second day, at the Keck Center of the National Academies, discussing the link between science policy in a presentation titled “The Art of Framing Science for Diplomacy.”