Skip to main content

New AAAS President Emphasizes Science as Public Service

Very early on, Margaret Hamburg learned two important lessons about science. Her mother, a noted psychiatrist who was the first African American woman to be admitted to Vassar College and to graduate from the Yale University School of Medicine, had persevered through a difficult childhood after her surgeon father died and Jim Crow laws prevented her family from inheriting his property. Hamburg’s father, the son of Jewish immigrants who had escaped pogroms in Europe, was the first in his family to earn an advanced degree and went on to become the chair of the Stanford University psychiatry department. Growing up on the Stanford campus, Hamburg learned that science could be not only the pathway toward a rewarding and interesting life but also an invaluable tool for making the world a better place. 

“Both my parents are unusually big thinkers, who were committed to the world of service and using knowledge to improve the condition of others,” Hamburg said in an interview this month, just before she was due to start a one-year term as president of AAAS. 

Hamburg | The Simons Foundation

Hamburg followed her parents into medicine and into public service. After attending Harvard Medical School, she did neuroscience research at Rockefeller University, studied neuropharmacology at the National Institute of Mental Health and conducted HIV/AIDS research policy and research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Early in her career, at age 36, Hamburg became New York City’s health commissioner, where she worked to improve services for women and children, combat HIV infection, prevent the spread of tuberculosis and initiate a bioterrorism preparedness program. In 1997, President Bill Clinton named her assistant secretary for planning and evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services. She then spent about eight years at the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative as founding vice president for biological programs and senior scientist. For six years, she served as the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a difficult post from which she often emerged with praise from factions on both sides of contentious issues. Since 2015, she has served as the foreign secretary of the National Academy of Medicine

Speaking about her current tenure as AAAS president—a position her father, David Hamburg, held in 1984—Hamburg said that now is the most important time ever for science to fulfill its role in providing innovations that will help solve the world’s biggest problems, such as disease, poverty, food and water shortages, climate change and security. Solving such problems, Hamburg said, will require cooperation across international borders and across the many scientific disciplines represented by AAAS. 

“None of the challenges that we face in our modern world,” she said, “fit neatly into one area of expertise, one government agency, or one domain of work. Nor can we work in isolation within our national borders.” 

Hamburg sees AAAS as critical to helping expand scientific collaboration between countries and regions, both to solve the major problems requiring international solutions and to leverage that collaboration to improve global diplomatic relations. Hamburg called the work of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, which marks its 10th anniversary this year, an important program that “especially now deserves attention.” 

Over the course of her career, Hamburg acquired much cross-disciplinary experience handling real-world competing interests, while at the same time bringing scientific rigor to the decision-making. “I have learned to listen carefully to pull together different parts of my experience with new things I’m exposed to, to take a synthetic approach to problem solving,” she said. 

Such synthesis is also necessary, Hamburg said, to narrow the gap between scientists and nonscientists, a gap that can be associated with today’s “tendency to discount experts,” and even the inadequate funding of science. 

“I would like to better understand the increasing skepticism about science,” she said. “It concerns and surprises me on many levels. I think it is important that we as the science community, led by AAAS, are getting out and learning, talking to people, trying to make sure that we are not a closed community, but one that is truly engaging the wider public.” 

While Hamburg came of age in an era when conferences, journal articles and the occasional educational television show were the main science communication methods, she said that she advocates taking up the most cutting-edge tools available. “We need to embed science in the most updated media modalities and find more exciting and engaging ways to communicate science,” she said. 

Meanwhile, ongoing improvement of science education, as well as broadening the reach of science education—by expanding “pathways to science” such as science camps, special programs and role modeling in students’ own communities—are key to “helping people embrace and become aware of the importance of science,” Hamburg said. 

Quoting AAAS CEO Rush Holt, Hamburg said that at this point in history, AAAS must come out strongly as a “force for science”—and that she is ready to lend her own might to that. 

“I care passionately about science,” she said, “and what it can offer if we harness it to improve the lives of people and make a difference in our world.”

A version of this article appeared in AAAS News & Notes in the February 23, 2018, edition of the journal Science.

[Associated image: 2017 AAAS President Susan Hockfield, Former U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., 2018 AAAS President Margaret Hamburg at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting. Credit: Professional Images Photography]