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Barbara Schaal Shares Hope for Scientific Enterprise in 2017


One of the reasons that AAAS President Dr. Barbara Schaal chose "Serving Society Through Science Policy" as the theme of this year’s annual meeting is because of the change in national leadership.

“I think with the change in administrations, science policy is really important,” Schaal said. “And then it’s very important to have policies from the government that make sure that the scientific enterprise flourishes. And that’s something that’s important in terms of the wellbeing of the nation, to have a robust scientific enterprise.”

Schaal said science was the catalyst for many advances in health, information technology, agriculture, and aviation, pumping up the national economy. According to a 2010 report from the nonpartisan group United for Medical Research, an approximately $26.6 billion investment in research at the National Institutes of Health from the federal government led to $69.2 billion in economic activity and supported nearly 485,000 across the country.

“In order to keep those scientific discoveries coming, to keep new products developing, to keep new industries developing, new medicines, all of the things we rely on as a technological society, you need to continue to have a scientific enterprise to continue to make those discoveries that are going to be the basis for future technologies,” Schaal said. “And the other aspect of it is that a society that has a more robust economy tends to have more stability.”

She points to GPS navigation as one such technology that has a basis in a basic scientific discovery: electromagnetism. One of the plenary lectures at the 2017 Annual Meeting will be given by Dr. S. James Gates, a pioneering theoretical physicist, who gives GPS navigation’s roots in electromagnetism as an example of how scientific discoveries often lead to practical application. His lecture will be on Science and Evidence-Based Policymaking.

The other three plenary lectures will be given by Schaal, who will give the AAAS President’s Address; Dr. Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University; and Dr. May Berenbaum, professor and department head of entomology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Oreskes’s lecture is called, "The Scientist as Sentinel," and Berenbaum’s is called, "Can Science Save the Honey Bees?"

“I think that the AAAS Annual Meeting is incredibly diverse in the various topics [we’re offering],” Schaal said. “I think in terms of science policy, we’re going to be hearing...from Jim Gates and he does a great job of pointing out the basic science, but the other topics that we’ll deal with [are] advances in various different fields. I think that’s going to play into the idea that science is a very vibrant and important activity that needs to be supported.”

Schaal, an evolutionary biologist who is best known for her work on the genetics of different plant species, has plenty of recent experience advising public servants on scientific matters. She was appointed by President Obama to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2009 and by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 as one of three new science envoys to advise the White House and the State Department.

She said there are several different ways that science should support public policy. 

“A lot of those issues [climate change, genetically modified foods and stem cell research] have a strong scientific basis. But, at the same time, the science isn’t the only thing. We also have to think about how we as a society and how we as individuals, with our own cultures and backgrounds, perceive these things. But I think, for policy to go forward, you have to understand what the current state of knowledge is about a topic.”

She uses the example of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where high levels of lead contamination resulted in a public health crisis.

“What are the health consequences of various parts per million in the water? If you understand [the] health consequences at various parts per million, you can design public policy that is effective in reducing those consequences,” she said.

Despite the ability of science to inform public policy and public servants, a large portion of U.S. citizens remain skeptical of science. In 2015, 79 percent of citizens said that science has made life easier for most people versus 15 percent who said science has made life more difficult. But in 2009, the margin was 83 percent to 10 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Schaal said it's the job of the scientific community to communicate “what science is and what it can address, and what it can’t address.”

“I think that there is this confusion that science is just another belief system as opposed to being a system which provides fundamental knowledge of the natural world, of how things work and what things are,” Schaal said. She said it starts in school.

“I think having strong science education in K-12 is absolutely essential and I think it’s important to not just teach facts, which is sometimes what happens, but to really have folks understand, have children understand, what science is and to understand that this [is] how we know what the world is like, by investigating scientific issues.”

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