APS News

Scientists Issue Call for More Public Engagement

Negative perceptions of science in the public mind have been intensified lately by anxiety about dwindling fuel sources and spikes in energy costs, as well as by ideological attacks on the science of climate change and evolution. Recent studies have shown widespread misconceptions abound about basic but important technical essentials. At the APS April Meeting a number of scientists spoke out in order to help bridge this gap between the laboratory and the public sphere.

Speaking at the April Meeting’s public town hall session on science and society, Lawrence Krauss, a professor at Arizona Sate University and one of science’s most vocal proponents, called scientists to become more involved in the public debate over science.

“Fundamentally we need to convince people to believe in science because science works,” Krauss said, “Scientists need to learn how to do public relations…We have to learn how people listen.”

Speaking at a session entitled “Science Policy: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” Neal Lane, presidential science advisor under Clinton, similarly called for a new era of what he dubs “Civic Science.” Such civic scientists would work on important national projects, while at the same time represent the public face of the science community to promote the importance of all fields to the general public. Emphasizing the need to work across disciplines, Lane added that, “our voice as scientists speaking common messages needs to be heard.”

Much of this concern has been galvanized by an apparent growing disconnect between the importance of energy issues and the public’s understanding of them. A recent public survey carried out by the organization Public Agenda, titled “The Energy Learning Curve,” found that three-quarters of the public agree that the US should move towards increased usage of alternative energy. However the same poll found that 51 percent could not identify a renewable energy source and 39 percent couldn’t even identify a fossil fuel.

This is of particular concern because many predict that in the upcoming century, the greatest scientific and technical challenge will be to develop vast quantities of inexpensive and renewable energy for the world’s growing population. Methods using today’s cutting edge technology will need to be developed on a massive industrial scale, likely with a great deal of government support.

“If the voters are ignorant of technical matters, how can they evaluate the performance of government officials, and thus establish the legitimacy of their governance? Science must therefore, not only give wise advice to government, but must also find a way to share their understanding of the factual basis for policy choices with the public,” said Lewis Branscomb, Professor of Public Policy and Corporate Management (emeritus) in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, presenting at the Science Policy session.

Already current energy sources are beginning to feel the strain of excessive use. Recent spikes in fuel costs, and concerns over global climate change have highlighted the coming need for large quantities of alternative fuels.

Recent fuel cost spikes however may only be the tip of the iceberg in upcoming decades. Though extrapolations are always inexact at best, projections based on known global petroleum reserves and fuel consumption, predict some sort of future global energy crisis. Many analysts conclude that within the next century, global oil and natural gas reserves will be tapped out and new alternate fuels will be needed.

Working through these looming energy problems while simultaneously promoting science to the public might seem daunting, but there is also optimism about the future. Many at the meeting have seen the election of Barack Obama as a boon for the science community. In his April 27 speech to the National Academy of Sciences, President Obama said he wanted the United States to recommit itself to the pursuit of basic science. He also pledged a target of 3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product be devoted to research and development.

“I’m going to participate in a public awareness and outreach campaign to encourage students to consider careers in science, mathematics, and engineering because our future depends on it,” President Obama said, adding that, “We are restoring science to its rightful place…Our progress as a nation, and our values as a nation, are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy.”

Some scientists even see the potential energy crisis as an opportunity in itself. John Gibbons, who preceded Neal Lane as science advisor to President Clinton, said he saw it as the perfect platform to promote physics for the public good.

“If you’re in the right place at the right time, namely an emergency, you can get a lot done,” Gibbons said.

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Editor: Alan Chodos