Skip to main content

Jane Maienschein shows how science works by examining its history

AAAS Fellow Jane Maienschein talks to her students about the Embryo Project Encyclopeida, a website that makes embryology more easily consumable. (Photo: Lara Herrington Watson)

AAAS Fellow Jane Maienschein's scientific journey started in her hometown, Oakridge, Tenn., also home to the Oakridge National Laboratory, where "there was just science in the air. It was more a question of which science you were going to do, rather than whether you were going to do science," Maienschein says.

Now a professor and Director of Arizona State University's Center for Biology and Society, Maienschein initially thought she wanted to be an astrophysicist. Deciding it would be more interesting not to specialize, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science, which looks at the nature of science and how scientists discover things and problem solve. 

Maienschein has dedicated her career to working to change public perception of biology's value to society and to help shape reasoned policymaking on controversial bioethical issues—including evolution, embryo research, cloning and stem cells.

It is a crusade that often has taken her to the frontlines of debate among scientists, policymakers, cultural organizations and the public.

Serving as a fellow with the 105th Congress, for instance, Maienschein encountered general misinformation about stem cell research. She recalls one draft of a bill that would have outlawed genetic cloning.

"The proposed bill was worded in ways that would have prohibited and actually included criminal charges and a fine for women who gave birth to identical twins," she says. When Maienschein explained the implications of the bill's language, the congressional staff abandoned the proposed bill.

"This is an example of why people should have knowledge available about what the science actually shows," she says.

Maienschein recognized the importance of communicating about science from her earliest days. "I discovered in college a widespread impression that science works because we discover one more thing after another, but that isn't really true," she says.

Instead, explains Maienschein, science is like solving a logic puzzle. Following a paradigm shift, it leaps forward. This occurs when precepts scientists hold true, based on a set of assumptions, are proven wrong. Scientists must then reevaluate prior assumptions, which can lead them to solve other, sometimes previously unanswerable, questions.

The major paradigm shift in scientific knowledge that occurred in 1998, with the discovery of stem cells, propelled a major avenue of Maienschein's research, including publication of her seminal book, "Whose View of Life? Embryos, Cloning, and Stem Cells."

"Scientists assumed that when cells divided, once differentiated, that was fate. Nerve cell is nerve cell, skin cell is skin cell. When we learned we could reprogram cells—that's crazy! That meant our underlying assumptions were wrong," Maienschein says.

In search of insights into paradigm shifts over time, Maienschein has reproduced many historic scientific experiments to see what assumptions scientists have made throughout history. Her goal is to open a dialogue between the scientific community and the public about the vital role of science and science education in society.

"Giving people the right to have access to scientific information is urgently important," she says. "We risk making foolish mistakes as a society when we fail to take into account available knowledge. If kids don't get to learn about evolution in schools, or about climate change or that embryos start out as just a bunch of undifferentiated cells, then they will start with problematic and limited assumptions."

Maienschein has taken her quest to create dialogue around important scientific information into many public arenas. During a period of public controversy over teaching evolution in the late '90s, Maienschein became a consultant to Arizona's Board of Education. She also did public speaking and outreach, and talked about evolution with local church groups.

"I love teaching," she says. "If you can understand what other people are thinking, and try to get them to think about something different or additional, you've succeeded."

Most of the time she has been able to come to a point of mutual respect with those who don't agree with her, but there are some with a 'science is worthless' attitude, whom she hasn't been able to meet halfway. 

"I respect that people have different views, but it's not an acceptable view to reject science out of hand," she says.

In spite of science's advancements, Maienschein says she sees "a disturbing trend of anti-intellectualism, anti-knowledge, and anti-education in America."

It frustrates her to see anti-intellectuals in a country like the U.S., which has prospered due to science and technology. Although this may not be the worst time in history for public fear or rejection of science, Maienschein points to historic periods, such as post-WWII, when science was valued more.

"To turn public attitude around, it's really important for everybody to understand how science works, what it can do, and what it can't do," Maienschein says.  People need to realize they can make science work for the good of humanity, she says.

"Society might, for example, decide that it's a priority to work to reduce the human impacts on climate change or develop regenerative medical treatments," observes Maienschein. "Then once those goals are set, science can help discover the knowledge to meet the needs. Science can develop new approaches, but people in society have to decide what they want."

To help the public understand the scientific process and the history of science, Maienschein founded the Web-based Embryo Project Encyclopedia in 2007. The site is written by undergraduate and graduate students who summarize scientific articles, lectures, drawings and photographs about embryology, making them more easily consumable for laymen, including middle and high school students.

The interactive site covers topics from medical conditions of embryos to religious and societal views of the embryo throughout history. It contains an array of articles ranging from dinosaur embryos to Pope Gregory XIV's opinions about the embryo. Maienschein hopes this project will demystify science and give the public access to scientific truths.

As the rate of scientific development continues to escalate, "studies of the intersection of science and society will become increasingly important," Maienschein says. "We need perspective to help us understand underlying assumptions and to make wise choices."