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AAAS Unveils Alan I. Leshner Leadership Institute

Communicating climate change will be the initial focus of a new institute — supported by more than $500,000 in donations so far-honoring the association's retired CEO, Alan I. Leshner.

"Alan has been a tireless advocate of public engagement with science," said current CEO Rush D. Holt, as part of a 13 April farewell celebration for his predecessor. "He has encouraged scientists to proactively participate in dialogue on science-society issues, to truly listen to public concerns and questions, and not to lecture. The Alan I. Leshner Institute in Public Engagement with Science will honor that work and his legacy in public engagement."

"Alan Leshner personifies a rich, diverse career in biomedical research, and he is a true visionary in the field."

Anthony Fauci
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Anthony Fauci | AAAS/Epnac.com

Holt, executive publisher of the Science family of journals, said that the institute's efforts in 2016 will emphasize the importance of public-engagement and communications related to climate change.

Specifically, the institute will "train and empower 15 mid-career scientists per year to develop public-engagement activities in their home communities," said Tiffany Lohwater, AAAS meetings and public engagement director. "An intensive, week-long training curriculum will be followed by twelve months of support."

Nominations for the first cohort of scientist-leaders will open in the fall. Participants will be competitively selected by an advisory committee of natural and physical scientists, social scientists, and public-engagement practitioners. The work will be conducted under the auspices of the AAAS Center for Public Engagement of Science, which was established by Leshner in 2003.

Leshner served as AAAS CEO from 2001 until 2015. While at AAAS, his focus on public engagement — as well as international research cooperation and science diplomacy globally — reflected his view that "simply trying to educate the public about science-based issues is not working." He called for "more open and honest bidirectional dialogue about science and technology and their products, including not only their benefits but also their limits, perils, and pitfalls. In April 2014, Leshner announced his plan to retire. He was succeeded by Holt on 17 February, 2015.

Holt said that climate change was selected as the inaugural training topic, under the Leshner Leadership Institute, because "the problem is both pressing and timely"-coinciding this year with the United Nations Climate Change Conference set to take place in Paris; the 50th anniversary of the first climate-change statement by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology; and President Barack Obama's proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Beyond 2016, Lohwater said that AAAS staff and Leshner Leadership Institute advisors will select "other areas of science, with an eye toward topics that have a strong science-society component and enough scholarship in communication research to inform training."

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The new Leshner Leadership Institute activities related to climate change will build on an array of AAAS programmatic contributions related to climate change, particularly the recent "What We Know" report, which emphasized the consensus among climate scientists; the risks associated with pushing our climate system toward abrupt changes; and the value of taking action now. Other AAAS activities include Communicating Science training workshops and resources for climate scientists; WeatherSchool @ AAAS, a free online resource for middle- and high-school students; and Science NetLinks, a website for teachers.

At a farewell celebration at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Leshner was feted by speakers including past AAAS President Phillip A. Sharp (2013-2014) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health; AAAS President Geraldine Richmond of the University of Oregon; and AAAS Treasurer David Evans Shaw.

More About the Leshner Leadership Institute

The new Leshner Leadership Institute is a "wholly philanthropic initiative," said AAAS Director of Development Juli Staiano. The effort was led by immediate past AAAS Board Chair Phillip A. Sharp of the Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; AAAS CEO Rush D. Holt and Margaret Lancefield; AAAS Treasurer David Evans Shaw; and Board member Stephen P.A. Fodor and the Fodor Family Trust, among others. Leadership gifts have also been received from Daniel Pinkel; Past AAAS Presidents Alice Huang and David Baltimore; Sibyl R. Golden; Benjamin Hammett; and Kenneth A. Cowin.

As of 10 April, 2015, Staiano reported, more than 130 individuals had participated in the initiative, bringing total contributions beyond an initial goal of $500,000 to fund the institute in its first five years. "These gifts celebrate and advance Dr. Leshner's vision to help sharpen scientists' public-engagement skills in order to encourage civic dialogue around key science-society issues," she noted. On behalf of AAAS, Staiano thanked all individuals and organizations who have contributed funding to the Leshner Leadership Institute. Online gifts to the initiative are welcomed, she said. Alternatively, contact the Development Office by email, or by calling (202) 326-6636.

In a video tribute, Sharp, who serves as Institute Professor at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, told Leshner: "You made an enormous difference because you care. You care about people who work for you. You care about people in the country. You care about people in general around the world."

Fauci recounted Leshner's distinguished career, beginning with his role as a "rising star" on the faculty of Bucknell University in 1969; followed by his tenure as a science-administrator with the National Science Foundation; and as director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Leshner's exceptional communication skills allowed him to become an "authoritative voice of reason," Fauci said. In particular, Fauci cited Leshner's advocacy for the once-controversial notion that "addiction is a brain disease," not a moral failing. Today, Fauci noted, this understanding is widely accepted and has "elevated addiction treatment to a science." He lauded Leshner for "his keen intellect and courage in questioning established concepts and paradigms … in a way that was firm, committed, but not obnoxious."

Fauci also cited the launch of three new AAAS journals — Science Translational Medicine, Science Signaling, and the open-access title, Science Advances — as key contributions by Leshner during his tenure at AAAS. Sharp noted further that Leshner was instrumental in launching a far-reaching Transformation Initiative. That effort is helping the association to become more advocacy-focused and member-facing, while emphasizing a "digital-first" publishing strategy.

Author

Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs