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AAAS’ CEO Sudip Parikh Focuses Organization and Membership Towards 2021 Strategic Goals

Sudip Parikh
AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh, Ph.D.

This spring, AAAS took a definitive stance against systemic racism in the sciences, and announced a plan with a three-pronged approach to address it — starting with releasing data and committing to transparency and change, among other concrete actions and steps. And, while releasing the Baseline Assessment of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in AAAS/Science Functions report has been a move in the right direction for AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh, Ph.D., he’s not done setting other ambitious goals for the oldest, largest multidisciplinary scientific organization in the world.

Shortly after releasing AAAS’ draft plan to combat racism in STEM, Parikh also laid out additional priorities for the organization and its membership, such as integrating science into decision-making by building trust with policymakers and advocating for research and development globally, nationally and locally. In an interview held earlier this month, Parikh explained each of these priorities and the goals behind them, as well as what he hopes AAAS will achieve in 2021.

Integrate science into decision-making by building trust with societal influencers

AAAS is helping ensure science is fully integrated into decision-making spaces; whether that’s in the halls of Congress, in the Executive Branch, with seminarians or state and local policymakers. On that front, Parikh says it’s important for AAAS to show how science is needed at all levels, not just the most obvious ones.

“At the federal level, so many of us know about the S&T Policy Fellowship Program,” he says. “At the local and state level, we are starting to get our members connected to policymaking in their own communities so they can be a part of that discussion about local policies; for example, land use or something as community specific as turf versus grass fields. It’s about being part of discussions important to your community.”

Parikh says the AAAS community can expect a lot of work in the new grassroots movement, the Local and State Engagement Network (LSEN), which will serve as a hub to connect AAAS Members with potential opportunities to bring their science to the policymaking table. Starting early next year, members across the U.S. can register in the new LSEN online platform, which will provide access to training materials and opportunities to participate in the political process.

This priority to build trust with societal influencers crystallized for Parikh earlier this year as COVID-19 began to spread through the United States.

“Although the [public health] messages were coming from scientists and policymakers, it was 330 million independent decisions about whether or not I’m going to wear a mask or whether or not I’m going to physically distance myself that were going to actually make the difference,” he says. “And what that tells me is that decision making is going on at every level. It’s not only about having a scientist in the Cabinet to make that decision – though that’s also one of our goals. It’s about having 330 million Americans make individual decisions based on science that could have affected the overall spread.”

Parikh says AAAS Members can play a large role in this evolution towards local and state level policy. LSEN, S&TP Fellowships, and other AAAS programs will be important ways to do that.

“These are wonderful resources,” he says. “We have 120,000 members, and many of them are wanting to get involved in policy. Maybe they can’t be in Washington D.C. all the time. That’s great because, frankly, in Jefferson City, Missouri somebody from Mizzou – The University of Missouri - is going to be way more effective at affecting the policy than me flying in and having a discussion about policy.”

Advocate for research and development globally, nationally and locally

As the United States confronts a number of pressing challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and systemic racism, which together imperil our economy, our health, and our national security, Parikh acknowledges another critical setback: stagnated funding across the scientific enterprise. He’d like to see substantial progress on that front in 2021 and has identified two areas to indicate growth.

“The grossest measure is percent of GDP, which is about .7% of GDP right now that we spend on research and development at the federal level,” Parikh says. “In the 1960s, it was 1.9%. I’d like to see it at least double to 1.4%. That would be real progress. And as a percent of the economy, it’s still not very much. And it would start to match what other countries are doing around the world. We need to be at least as intense as other countries.”

To help track this, Parikh says the work of AAAS’ R&D Budget and Policy Program, steered by director Matt Hourihan, is essential. The program serves as a large and well-known source of information and insight on past, present and future science budgets for policymakers as well as the science community.

Beyond analysis for science spending and increased investment, an additional, broad measure Parikh sees as a major step in scientific research and development is the placement of a full-time science advisor in the Cabinet. Parikh sees this role as someone who can coordinate government responses to a range of challenges, such as infectious disease like in the case of COVID-19, but also broader opportunities, like improving access to science education.

Both measures, increasing GDP spending for R&D, as well as supporting a science advisor in the Cabinet, are areas where Parikh would like to see AAAS Members get involved. The first part, he says, is helping to create the intellectual argument on why these should be established in U.S. policy, and then spreading the word to others who might be outside the scientific community to support it. The next part is advocacy, utilizing AAAS’ strong relationships with both sides of the aisle to make things happen, according to Parikh.

“We really do need to make sure we’re making the argument that broad,” he says. “This is not about funding scientists. This is about creativity and innovation for all Americans. It’s science being conducted by all for the benefit of all.”

Address systemic racism in STEM with concrete actions and programs

Last month, AAAS shared the first two parts of a plan it will use to address diversity, equity and inclusion in the sciences, committing to public transparency about its own demographics and plans to address systemic racism.

The report, Baseline Assessment of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in AAAS/Science Functions, is AAAS’ first effort to make public aggregate demographic data on authors, reviewers, award winners and honorary Fellows, as well as select functions of AAAS. The report by Assistant Director of Research Jen Sargent and Deputy Chief Program Officer Marietta Damond provides a baseline accounting of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity and gender.

Since the report’s publication, Parikh has said the feedback he received has ranged from effusive to angry, and everywhere in between.

“It’s emotional and visceral, for those who have felt marginalized. It is emotional in that they want to see progress. For those who are well represented and have not really thought about it, it can be a challenging thing to think about,” he says of the responses.  “What I remind everyone is that highlighting the challenges faced by underrepresented minorities does not diminish anyone else’s story.  To meet the challenges of the future, the sciences need the descendants of Native Americans, Pilgrims, Founding Mothers and Fathers, Enslaved People, Ellis Island arrivals, and immigrants from everywhere.”

The work for AAAS is just beginning.

“Now the critical part for us is every generation gets these moments born of tragedy, these opportunities born of tragedy...And what separates the generations that do make progress from those that don’t is not losing momentum,” he says. “And, that’s what we’re doing here. We’re building a process to make progress so that in 2021, we’ll release the parallel data compared to the baseline and say, ‘What’s happened?’”

Beyond providing support and feedback, Parikh acknowledges another important role members can take on. That is, holding up a mirror to their own practices and environments, by engaging in the scientific process and asking questions about diversity and looking at the data.

“I hope our process can create space for our members in their own institutions and in their own work settings to think about how they would put some of these practices we are doing into action there. How would they look at their own data? How might they hold their own organizations accountable?” he asks.