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AAAS President Gilda Barabino: Humanity Is Core to Science

Gilda Barabino at the 2023 AAAS Annual Meeting
Gilda Barabino delivers the presidential address at the 2023 AAAS Annual Meeting. | Robb Cohen Photography & Video

A scientific enterprise centered on humanity must be open to all, must benefit all and must build trust among scientists and their communities, AAAS President Gilda Barabino told attendees of the 2023 AAAS Annual Meeting, which convened March 2-5 in Washington, D.C., under the banner “Science for Humanity.” Amid a “golden age” of scientific achievement, a focus on the people affected by such discoveries is more important than ever, Barabino noted.

“The concept of humanity is being pressure-tested,” said Barabino, who also serves as the president of Olin College of Engineering. “With wonders of the universe unfolding from space telescopes and the boundaries of what it means to be human being challenged by natural language models that can write and express emotions like us, we can’t lose sight of what it means to bring humanity to the sciences.”

During her presidential address, Barabino urged attendees to look beyond the definition of “humanity” that refers simply to the condition of being human and focus on a humanity that encompasses values such as compassion, understanding, kindness, interconnectedness and inclusion.

“A world of possibilities stands before us. As we turn these possibilities into reality,” she said, “let’s do so as human-centered scientists and engineers.”

Human-centered science must be open to all and benefit all, Barabino said.

Reflecting on AAAS’ long history as the organization celebrates its 175th anniversary, she noted that AAAS has not always advanced science that unites and benefits all. For instance, one of AAAS’ founding members was an advocate of polygenism, the long-debunked theory of separate origins of human races, and AAAS once also supported advocates of eugenics, as noted in a 2022 editorial in Science denouncing this element of the organization’s history.

But AAAS’ history also includes a longstanding commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion dating back nearly 50 years, Barabino said. And AAAS is partnering with other organizations to ensure opportunities for all people to participate in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine and to make STEMM pathways that serve all people equitably. The STEMM Opportunity Alliance, for instance, launched in December with the goal of building a STEMM ecosystem rooted in equity, inclusion and scientific excellence to power progress, innovation and prosperity for all. Last week, the alliance kicked off efforts to create a national strategic plan to focus on achieving equity across the STEMM ecosystem, Barabino said.

AAAS has also sought to broaden the definition of the STEMM workforce – and ensure that those traditionally underrepresented in STEMM have a home in the enterprise. In 2020, AAAS collaborated with other science and engineering organizations to redefine who counts as a STEMM professional by focusing on job duties rather than educational background. Based on analysis produced by the collaboration, federal agencies updated their definition of STEMM worker – and found that more than half do not hold a bachelor’s degree. The Science Is US initiative, of which AAAS is a partner, released new data this week that found 55% of the more than 67 million Americans working in  do not hold a bachelor’s degree.

This new understanding “helps reduce discrimination against those without bachelor’s degrees,” Barabino said. “It expands opportunities to grow skills and resources for people across industries, from farmers using weather data and robotics to cultivate and manage crops and those who care for us when we are sick using previously unimaginable diagnostic tools to specialized electricians and IT specialist who help make rockets fly.”

She added, “It also opens the door to consider students of non-traditional age, immigrants, refugees, veterans and others who are critical to the science and engineering community.”

Barabino also emphasized the need for scientists and engineers to build trust in their communities by focusing on what connects us, particularly amid the “tumult and division” that has affected trust in science in recent years. 

Barabino noted how AAAS has sought to foster mutual trust with communities including journalists, policymakers, judges and faith communities through efforts such as the newly relaunched Local Science Engagement Network; the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion; the AAAS Center for Scientific Responsibility and Justice; and Coalition for Trust in Health & Science, a group that AAAS and 50 other organizations launched March 2 at the AAAS Annual Meeting.

Barabino urged meeting attendees to keep shared human values at the forefront as they pursue scientific excellence, quoting Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

Science, too, is bound up in the human condition and can be a great connector and unifier, she added.

“When we look back at this moment and the coming years and decades ahead, what will we say?” Barabino asked attendees. "Did we meet the challenges of today and tomorrow with humanity at our core?”


Andrea Korte

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