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AAAS President Keith Yamamoto Called on STEMM Community to Move Toward Science Without Walls

Yamamoto Delivered the Presidential Address as Chair of the 2024 AAAS Annual Meeting

The AAAS Annual Meeting is a time to celebrate scientific discoveries and contemplate unsolved puzzles. The gathering must also be a time for reflecting on how the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine community can do even better, AAAS President Keith Yamamoto told meeting attendees.

Yamamoto welcomed thousands of attendees to the AAAS Annual Meeting, held Feb. 15-17 in Denver under the banner of “Toward Science Without Walls.” 

“The overarching issue I want to consider with you is silos – walls – that fragment our STEMM enterprise, barriers that compromise achieving advances,” said Yamamoto, who is also the vice chancellor for science policy and strategy and director of precision medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Yamamoto illuminated those barriers – “so solid as to be immovable features of our ecosystem, part of the natural order of things established so early and completely that they became transparent, unrecognized as barriers.” He identified four types: walls that inhibit communication and collaboration across disciplines and sectors; walls that impede creativity, innovation and urgency; walls that constrain membership and success in the STEMM enterprise; and walls that separate the STEMM enterprise from society. 

Yamamoto also focused on initiatives and activities underway to break down those barriers that show promise and bring hope – many of which were highlighted as part of the wide-ranging programming at the AAAS Annual Meeting. 

Siloed Science

The shifting structures of the scientific enterprise throughout history solidified in the years during and following World War II into a model in which the federal government supports basic research conducted by academia, while the profit-driven private sector transforms that knowledge into products that serve the public, Yamamoto explained. Yet those two sectors – which each house many disparate disciplines with their own silos – do not communicate or collaborate nearly enough, he said. Yamamoto cited the gap between the key piece of knowledge discovery for a drug and that drug’s emergence on the market. Among the 24 most effective drugs on the market, the median time between discovery and the marketplace was 32 years, he said. 

Yamamoto cited several federal government policies and initiatives tackling disparate scientific sectors and disciplines, including the CHIPS & Science Act and the Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation, both of which include mechanisms for integrating and coordinating scientific expertise across STEMM-related agencies, and ARPA-H, a new federal health agency aiming to tackle big challenges. 

Among the AAAS Annual Meeting sessions that focused on fostering collaboration across disciplines and sectors included a session that touched on the importance of diverse collaborations for successful space missions, a talk on breaking down barriers between the disciplines of engineering and Earth systems science, and a fireside chat discussing collaboration on an international scale featuring experts from the Department of State and the National Science Foundation.

Monica Bertagnolli, the newly appointed 17th director of the National Institutes of Health, raised these themes in her topical lecture, emphasizing the importance of breaking down silos to carry out transformative biomedical research.

“We make connections that can lead to better health by fostering an atmosphere of openness, collaboration, open minds,” said Bertagnolli.  

Low-Risk, Low-Impact Research

Yamamoto identified another key barrier to scientific excellence and innovation: a system that privileges and advances “well-resourced researchers at high-powered institutions, publishing lots of consensus, low-risk, low-impact papers, and limiting the sharing of data and resources.” This system rewards individual achievement and incremental progress and penalizes failure of any kind, despite the knowledge that working collaboratively and learning from failure can inform powerful results, Yamamoto said.

We know this, Yamamoto explained, because it happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many researchers pivoted to studying the SARS CoV-2 virus or better understanding the COVID-19 disease itself. Yamamoto illustrated the point by sharing a successful consortium formed at UC San Francisco in March 2020. The consortium started by collaborating with 10 labs at the university and grew to 113 labs at 44 institutions in 12 countries with more than 1,000 researchers, which has yielded measurable results including 26 drugs in clinical trial, including one in Phase 3.

“We must celebrate and sustain these types of emergent practices – highlighting to our academic and funding agency leaders that encouraging and rewarding collaborative team research, displacing careerism by re-igniting and rewarding the drive for discovery and impact, and establishing and enabling durable partnerships across disciplines, sectors, and national boundaries, enliven and excite our investigators, and can inspire remarkable scientific advances,” he said.

High-risk, high-reward scientific research was celebrated – and new frontiers were forecasted – at the AAAS Annual Meeting at numerous sessions highlighting the work of the Science Breakthrough of the Year winner and runners-up and at a plenary session focused on the urgent work underway to address the health impacts of climate change.

Exclusive Membership in the Scientific Enterprise

The third category of walls that inhibit scientific excellence, Yamamoto said, is barriers to membership and success in the scientific enterprise, due to bias, institutional hierarchies or lack of equitable access to resources. 

Yamamoto cited a 2020 study that identified the “diversity-innovation paradox” in science. Based on data from more than 1 million Ph.D. recipients, researchers from groups underrepresented in science displayed a higher level of innovation, but these novel contributions were less likely to be taken up by other scholars, and the minority Ph.D. recipients were less likely to be hired into influential academic roles, he said.

“The inescapable implication of the diversity-innovation paradox is that science would be better – more broadly based and likely faster and more efficient – if we did not continue to squander the innovation that comes from those with different life experiences, who trained in different environments, and who may perceive and prioritize problems and their solutions from novel perspectives,” said Yamamoto.

Among the events focused on breaking down this wall was a session offering guidance for higher education institutions to achieve their diversity, equity and inclusion goals, particularly as part of AAAS’ SEA Change initiative, and an evidence-based workshop on including a focus on purpose in science instruction to increase a feeling of belonging among minority students.

Yamamoto offered another example of an initiative that is breaking down barriers in who belongs in the scientific enterprise: the STEMM Opportunity Alliance. SOA is a AAAS-led coalition that seeks to ensure that by 2050, any child in the United States considers it their birthright to become a scientist.

“They will know we value their contributions, and we will celebrate their ingenuity and breakthrough thinking, which will enrich our society,” said Yamamoto.

Launched in 2022, SOA has been seeking input on their strategy to achieve this vision and will soon unveil its national strategy at upcoming summit.

Science Apart from Society

The fourth kind of walls, Yamamoto said, are those that separate and insulate the STEMM enterprise from society. The enterprise as a whole has put little effort into communicating the work it produces, not to mention the importance of basic research as the underpinning of technologies that serve the public good and the importance of decision-making rooted in scientific evidence, he noted.

Fortunately, society wants scientists to do more. Yamamoto cited the research of the Science and Technology Action Committee, a group he co-chairs, which found that while nearly 80 percent of respondents across political affiliations are concerned about politicization and distrust in science, 80 percent still want scientists to contribute more to shaping public policy.

Yamamoto offered two suggestions for ways that scientists can “seize this moment of trust in scientists and combat the loss of trust in science.” First, scientists should more uniformly receive training on communicating with the public – a skill distinct from lecturing, Yamamoto clarified.

Secondly, to achieve scientific advances that serve all, scientists must truly engage, Yamamoto said. They must “listen respectfully and gain wisdom from the public, to understand the public context in which we work, and to secure crucial public feedback and advice,” he said. Yamamoto shared various examples where AAAS is leading work to build trust among scientists and their communities, including with policymakers, journalists, and the legal and faith communities. 

The importance of communications skills and respectful engagement and a focus on societal impact of scientific breakthroughs echoed throughout the meeting’s program, with a lecture from Nobel Laureate Thomas Cech on how RNA can be a catalyst for public engagement with science, a session on the impacts (both positive and negative) of large language models like ChatGPT on society, and a workshop of building community engagement skills organized by the AAAS Local Science Engagement Network.

In delivering the Cassandra L. Jones Lecture, Erika Zavaleta, professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, spoke about how ecological research can strengthen both biodiversity and cultural diversity, particularly through community-partnered research. 

She emphasized the importance of connecting with tribal and agency partners throughout the research process using a model of continual engagement. 

“Scientific innovation is just one little piece of the puzzle,” Zavaleta said.

Yamamoto concluded his remarks by reminding attendees: “Together, we can tear down these walls that separate us from each other, from bold thinking and doing, from joyful fellowship in a broader, more diverse, equitable and impactful workforce, and from becoming whole with our partners outside of STEMM.”

Read the speech transcript.

Watch the full plenary:

Image credit: Robb Cohen Photography & Video


Andrea Korte

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