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Moments and People Who Shaped AAAS as It Turns 175

In 2022, the American Association for the Advancement of Science unveiled a new strategic vision with four focused and refined goals, which will guide the organization for years to come. They include advancing scientific excellence and achievement; fostering equity and inclusion for scientific excellence; building trust among scientists and communities; and catalyzing progress where science meets policy.

The AAAS of today, which celebrates 175 years this month, was shaped by visionaries throughout the association’s storied history, as a look back at AAAS history shows. This history is part of what will inform how AAAS ignites progress and continues to serve at the forefront of advancing science to serve society.

“Now more than ever, science is essential to the decisions that will determine the prospects for future health, prosperity, and peace,” AAAS CEO Sudip S. Parikh wrote in a 15 September 2023 editorial in Science. “The scientific enterprise and AAAS must help shape the next 175 years and not be bystanders as history unfolds before us.”

Advancing scientific excellence

By bringing together scientists from disparate fields, the founders of AAAS recognized the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to advancing scientific excellence.

Since 1874, AAAS has annually honored as fellows many scientists who broke barriers in their time. Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, the first Black American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University; astronaut Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic and second woman director in the history of the Johnson Space Center; and Admiral Grace Hopper, a pioneer in computer software development and programming languages, are among the honorees of the program as it nears its 150th anniversary.

The Science family of journals is critical to the association’s mission of advancing scientific excellence. The association’s oldest award, the AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize, was established in 1923 to recognize the year’s most outstanding research paper in Science. First funded by advertising executive Newcomb Cleveland and now supported by The Fodor Family Trust, the prize has recognized key discoveries in quantum entanglement, draft genomes of the fruit fly and the Neanderthal, Bose-Einstein condensates, the first views of extrasolar planets, and the impact of radiation on genes and chromosomes, among other work.

Upon his death, the New York Times said the prize “was inspired by Mr. Cleveland’s belief that it was the scientist who counted and who needed the encouragement an unexpected monetary award could give.” That belief is carried forward today by the Mani L. Bhaumik Breakthrough of the Year Award, which supports a $250,000 annual cash prize for the scientists behind Science’s Breakthrough of the Year.

“The Breakthrough of the Year is done by people—it just doesn’t fall from the sky,” said Bhaumik, who has pledged $11.4 million for the award. “People are really at the center of the Breakthrough.”

Science for all

In 1973, the AAAS Board of Directors appointed a Committee on Opportunities in Science to advise the association on achieving greater representation of women and scientists from marginalized communities across AAAS and the scientific enterprise. As part of that effort, AAAS’s Shirley Malcom and colleagues produced “The Double Bind” report after a groundbreaking meeting in 1975 of 30 women scientists representing diverse backgrounds.

“Most of us experienced strong negative influences associated with race or ethnicity as children and teenagers but felt more strongly the handicaps for women as we moved into post-college training in graduate schools or later in careers,” wrote Malcom and her colleagues.

The report offered a blueprint for change that could lead to a dramatic increase in women and minority participation in the sciences, but it also exposed the continuing systemic barriers to participation in the sciences.

The organization’s early efforts have given it the credibility to launch new programs that address these systemic issues, said Malcom, who now directs one of those programs, called SEA Change. Now with 27 members, the program aims to expand the talent pool in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) by partnering with colleges and universities to take steps to identify and remove barriers to diversity, equity, and inclusion in those fields.

AAAS is also leading the national initiative to attain fundamental, systemic change to close the opportunity gap within STEMM through the STEMM Opportunity Alliance (SOA), launched in 2022 with founding support from the Doris Duke Foundation. More than 125 partners in industry, education, research infrastructure, community organizations, and philanthropies have committed $1.5 billion to the alliance, which will launch and begin implementing a national strategy in 2023 to achieve equity and inclusive excellence in STEMM by 2050.

Where science meets policy

A black and white photo of the members of the 1973 class of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows
The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships launched in 1973 with seven fellows on Capitol Hill. | Courtesy of AAAS STPF

The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, demonstrates the impact and reach of a more inclusive scientific enterprise. This celebrated initiative is more diverse than the nation’s pool of STEMM PhD holders and brings a similarly rich set of knowledge and skills to help inform, communicate, and implement policy solutions throughout all three branches of the federal government.

S&T Policy Fellows are known for not only bringing critical, science-based evidence to the table but also explaining it with simplicity and relevance. They work across the aisle to ensure that science-informed evidence regarding climate change, energy, health and technology, and other pressing issues is considered in the policy-making process. A 2019 survey of the program found that 95% of government staff respondents felt that the fellows made important contributions to critical policy decisions.

William T. Golden, who served as AAAS treasurer for 30 years, helped establish STPF, setting a precedent for the Golden Family Foundation’s extensive support of the association, which today is memorialized at the AAAS headquarters, named the William T. Golden Center for Science and Engineering. In 2008, the Golden family helped AAAS build trusted relationships on an international scale with the launch of the Center for Science Diplomacy.

Among other long-standing AAAS policy efforts are the annual Forum on Science & Technology Policy and the R&D Budget and Policy Program, which has been a leading source of independent data and analysis of federal research funding since its initial support by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in 1976.

Building trust with communities

Building on the respect and trust that AAAS’s national and international policy programs have garnered over decades, the association has made a significant effort in recent years to expand its state and local engagement activities.

“If you want to have a big policy-making impact, you can’t ignore the federal government, but frankly there is a broader need for support and help in understanding evidence and the narrative around evidence that state and local regulators and policy-makers are evaluating to make policy decisions,” said Michael Fernandez, the founding director of the AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues (EPI Center).

The EPI Center works with state and local policy-makers to share actionable evidence on topics from drinking water safety to voting machine security. Other recent additions to AAAS that focus on local engagement include the Local Science Engagement Network (LSEN), which mobilizes scientists and engineers to participate in civic engagement in their local communities, and SciLine, a free and independent service launched with founding support from the Quadrivium Foundation, which provides trusted sources and resources for journalists, with a special emphasis on the needs of local and general assignment reporters.

Over a quarter-century ago, establishing trust and partnership between US scientific and religious communities was the motivation for the founding of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER). Since 1995, the program has expanded with long-standing support from the John Templeton Foundation and other partners to include a variety of initiatives that bring scientists into faith communities to talk about issues like evolution, public health, societal justice, and climate change.

Like many AAAS programs, DoSER’s deep roots support its vibrant new growth. As DoSER Director Emeritus Jennifer Wiseman noted, “The focus on building connections and longer-term relationships is what outlasts specific projects.”

As AAAS embarks on the next era, it will build on these milestones to strive for its new vision to mobilize an inclusive and global scientific community to ignite, enable, and celebrate scientific excellence and science-informed decisions and actions.

This article first appeared in the AAAS News & Notes section of the Sept. 29, 2023 issue of Science.