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Disrupted Norms Bring New Urgency to Science, Says AAAS President

AAAS President Margaret Hamburg speaks on the opening evening of the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting. | Robb Cohen Photography & Video

Disruptions in technology and the legacy of disenfranchisement among women and other marginalized groups in science have brought the profession to a “boiling point” that researchers cannot ignore, said American Association of the Advancement of Science President Margaret Hamburg.

Today’s scientists must find responsible ways to share startling discoveries in fields like gene editing and artificial intelligence with the public, Hamburg said in her plenary address Thursday night at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting. At the same time, she said, researchers must address the cultural shifts against harassment and prejudice that are taking place in the U.S. and the rest of the world, to ensure that their field retains its best minds.

Hamburg said the urgent pace of the current changes reminded her of the bleak but critical days of the late 1980s, when HIV/AIDS patients and activists demanded a new paradigm for drug trials and treatment from her and her colleagues at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

The experience “helped me understand the reality that many of our greatest challenges exist at the interface of a broader set of social, ethical, political and legal concerns — and that the answer to these challenges requires us to transcend boundaries,” she said.

The AIDS activists compelled researchers to open their science to a wider public conversation, in a way that offers a guide to tackling modern challenges, Hamburg noted.

In 2019, “it is not enough to keep our heads down at our lab benches, noses in our research proposals, eyes behind our computer screens. More is required,” she said.

Scientists instead should repeatedly convey to the public and policymakers “why science matters in their lives, why it especially matters right now, and how they can engage to ask questions and help solve problems that will matter most to their health and quality of life, their livelihoods, their safety and our shared future,” said Hamburg.

The theme of the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting is "Science Transcending Boundaries." | Robb Cohen Photography & Video

These conversations are difficult in the face of a new disdain for expertise, she noted. “This is not a uniquely American phenomenon,” Hamburg said. “But regrettably, the current administration here in Washington has fanned the flames significantly. The fire is now blazing, leaving a scorched path of uncertainty and anxiety about how science-based challenges are being addressed.”

She pointed to AAAS initiatives such as the EPI Center, launched in 2018 to provide clear and timely scientific and technical evidence to policymakers and community decision-makers, as well as the 2017 debut of SciLine, a free resource for reporters looking for scientific experts and research-based context for news stories, as a few of the ways that the society is fighting to making evidence matter in the era of “alternative facts.”

Hamburg said the scientific community “is not immune” to problems of harassment and prejudice that have gained prominence in recent years. Women and underrepresented minorities, among other groups, “are, and have always been, disenfranchised in ways that prevent people from fulfilling their potential,” she said.

“It is no longer enough to be concerned, even outraged by this problem,” she said. “It’s time to fix it.”

Last September, AAAS’ governing board voted to enact a policy under which a AAAS Fellow’s lifetime honor can be revoked for proven scientific misconduct or serious breaches of professional ethics including sexual harassment. Hamburg said AAAS will also lead a coalition of more than 53 scientific societies seeking to address sexual and gender harassment and to develop new professional standards and organizational culture within the sciences.

Some scientists may feel uncomfortable with this accelerated era of their profession, but “there are many challenges before us, and our fast-changing societal terrain has raised the stakes,” said Hamburg. “In the words of Albert Schweitzer, the great humanitarian, philosopher and physician, ‘I am looking at the future with concern, but with good hope.’”

Hamburg, who also serves as foreign secretary of the National Academy of Medicine, is a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She follows in a family tradition of service to AAAS: her father David A. Hamburg was AAAS president in 1984, while her mother Beatrix Hamburg was a member of the association’s board of directors from 1987 to 1991.

Before the presidential address, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue, an honorary co-chair of the 2019 meeting, spoke about strengthening the partnerships between science and industry. Seema Kumar, a vice president of innovation, global health and policy communication at Johnson & Johnson, who sponsored the night’s plenary session, announced the company would be expanding its support of AAAS’ Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowships, which place scientists in summer internships at local newsrooms around the U.S.

Susan Hockfield, chair of the AAAS Board, opened the evening’s event by presenting the 2019 Philip Hauge Abelson Prize and the 2018 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize.