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Science policy used to be an inside-the-beltway affair. The subject was too numbing, arcane and technical for a public that lacked the interest, education and knowledge necessary to render any meaningful judgment.
And for more than six decades, science survived and mostly thrived on the wisdom and commitment of elected officials and well-schooled policymakers. But that was during an era when public trust in government was generally much higher than it is today.
Throughout the 1960s, even with Vietnam dividing the nation, the public’s trust in Washington remained above 60 percent, according to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. Watergate eventually took its toll, and by the time Richard Nixon resigned, it had fallen dramatically to 35 percent. But by 2012 standards, that figure would represent rapture.
Today, according to Gallup, fewer than one in five Americans has much confidence that elected officials will do the right thing in Washington. Voters delivered that message at the ballot box in 2010, when they sent a record number of members of Congress packing.
The outcome of the election also sent shockwaves throughout the political establishment. And it prompted science insiders to wonder whether the anti-establishment vote posed a danger for public support of federal research.
To shed light on the issue, the science, engineering and high-tech community engaged Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner in the spring of 2011 to conduct four focus groups, followed by a major national poll. The outcome was decidedly mixed.
Overwhelmingly, the respondents said they believed that it was important for the United States to be a global leader in science. But half of them gave the government a very low or failing grade for how it was managing its research programs. And they split evenly on whether cutting federal funding for science was an appropriate response.
Science, it appeared, did not draw a pass when it came to the public’s general repugnance for activities that carried the imprimatur of the federal government. And with members of Congress wary of a disillusioned public that could cost them their seats, fiscal conservatives, especially, are now almost reflexively opposed to committing federal funds even to science.
Unless the mood of the country changes, it’s hard to see how science will be accorded political sanctuary without greater public understanding of the societal good it delivers. And that will require scientists to become more involved with the lay public, not so much to teach science but rather to preach the value of science.
Professional societies, APS among them, devote considerable resources to outreach, education and the media. But as worthy as they are, at least among adults, these efforts are most likely to reach an audience already attracted to science. Only rarely do they connect with people for whom science is a disconnect.
If average American citizens know little of the benefits they have derived from science–apart from medicine–it is the fault of the science community for not expending more effort to provide the narrative. That must change.
In arguing that physicists have been ducking a social responsibility, I am not suggesting we suffer from lassitude in any way. Far from it: almost all of us are overburdened with the demands of our profession. But if we ensconce ourselves in our laboratories and talk only to each other when we venture out, we cannot expect the public to grasp the societal value of science from a few snippets of news they might accidentally encounter.
And if the public doesn’t appreciate the value of science and doesn’t trust its elected representatives to make wise choices, science will suffer and with it the notion of exceptionalism to which most Americans pay homage.
Science has been the principal driver of our nation’s economy for six decades. It has protected us from our adversaries and provided medicine with the diagnostic tools and cures we all prize.
It is now time for us to broadcast the science story more widely. As odious as it may sound to a community that probably doesn’t watch the TV hit show “Mad Men,” we must begin to market and advertise science as a social good to a vast public that has likely never thought about it. It is time for us to expand the public outreach toolkit.
In an era when public trust in government is at a historic low, we must move science advocacy beyond the beltway. We must become as adept with public engagement as we are with research and discovery. We owe it to ourselves and to our nation. We must begin a science marketing campaign now. Science matters.
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Editor: Alan Chodos