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U.S. Scientific Community Needs a Mission Reboot to Focus on Public Good

Michael McQuade
Michael McQuade spoke May 2 at the 44th annual AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy. |

To increase public support for science, scientists must ensure that the public enjoys an ownership stake in the scientific enterprise and is well informed about the benefits it delivers, said Michael McQuade, research vice president at Carnegie Mellon University, at the 44th annual AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.

Speaking to the Forum’s theme of “Strengthening Science and Its Benefits to Society,” McQuade addressed the challenges of bolstering support for science at a time when trust in institutions is at an all-time low and facts are debatable, mutable and easily dismissed.

“Our training, our research and our expertise are less important to the public as scientists and technologists than is the public’s willingness and desire to belong to a group,” said McQuade. “Our messaging and the way we portray the role of science and technology as practitioners has to be modified.”

While scientists have historically been skilled at sharing facts, that is no longer enough, McQuade said. Scientists must create “a new American affinity for science” by focusing on what science can do for all Americans and engaging the public in these conversations, he said.

To understand how perceptions of science can build public support, McQuade looked back to mid-20th century, an era in which Americans’ respect for science and scientists were at an all-time high, he noted.

The era was marked by the Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first nuclear weapons and ended World War II, and the Space Race, which peaked with Americans putting a man on the moon, “people saw the benefits of science and technology viscerally,” McQuade said. “They saw it in their life, they saw it in the steady stream of new products and mostly they saw it as a consequence of what the government what doing.”

“We see technology in this era benefitting all Americans, and we see people trusting that government-sponsored research, innovation and technology was being delivered for all Americans,” he said.

Today, while government investment still supports scientific research, “commercialization and monetization” of technology has shifted public perceptions about the beneficiaries of such innovations away from the public good and toward individual companies, McQuade noted.

“We think of the rewards of tech as beneficial to us, but we think of the owners of tech as the private sector,” he said. “It changes the equation between society and technology.”

The perception of science as a private good rather than a public good has been accompanied by a severe decline in public trust in governmental institutions, McQuade said. A 1958 Pew poll found that 73% of respondents declared trust in the government “just about always or most of the time,” a rate that had fallen to 17% in March, McQuade said. Trust in other institutions, such as businesses, nongovernmental organizations and media, have also seen steep drops in recent years, he added.

McQuade offered an example of an area about which scientists can engage Americans: artificial intelligence. “Properly harnessed, it will be as transformational as things like personal computers were or things like semiconductors were,” McQuade said. Yet, the role that AI might play is a conversation that must take place with public input.

“We can only win the battle when we can engage the American populace in a conversation about what science and technology deliver for them and engage them in conversation that allows them to identify as a group, as they did in the late 40s and early 50s,” he said.

Added McQuade, “We have to create that American 21st century identity, one that looks forward optimistically to what science and technology can do not for some, but to what it can do for all. We need to recapture that classic American sense that science is serving all the country.”