Do Scientists Understand the Public? June 29–Mark Your Calendars

By Chris Mooney | June 8, 2010 12:02 pm

Recently, I learned that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, with support from the Sloan Foundation, had undertaken a path-breaking project to examine what scientists understand about the public. The Academy held four sessions on the topic with experts over the past year and a half, and then asked me to write a paper about the workshops and what they taught and revealed.

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The initiative, and my paper, are scheduled to be unveiled at an event  at the American Association for the Advancement of Science auditorium in Washington, D.C., on June 29, co-sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Washington Science Policy Alliance. The event requires registration, and here is a write up for it:

While considerable attention has been paid to strengthening public education in science and technology, less effort has gone into helping researchers understand what lies behind the public response to new advances and discoveries. Public concerns about scientific developments can come not only from ignorance, but also from legitimate worries. In 2008, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences launched a study on what the scientific community knows or should know about the public and its concerns. Funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, this project considers the role of the scientist and the public in deliberations about the tradeoffs inherent in scientific or technological developments.

The American Academy brought together leading scientists and technologists, ethicists, public policy experts, former public officials, science journalists, and others to discuss and improve awareness of the broader social and cultural context for scientific work. The project focused on four topics identified as timely and likely to benefit from the type of public deliberation envisioned by the project. The first workshop focused on The Next Generation of the Internet and was chaired by David Clark (MIT), a leader in the development of the Internet. A second workshop focused on the Public Perceptions of Nuclear Waste Repositories; it was chaired by Thomas Isaacs (Stanford University and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory). The third workshop on The Spread of Personal Genetic Information, was chaired by David Altshuler (Broad Institute). The fourth workshop, chaired by Robert Fri (Resources for the Future), explored the Risks and Benefits of Emerging Energy Technologies.

Please join the American Academy and the Washington Science Policy Alliance to learn more about the findings and recommendations of the Scientists’ Understanding of the Public project.

Speakers
Robert Fri, Visiting Scholar and Senior Fellow Emeritus, Resources for the Future
Chris Mooney, Science and Political Journalist and Commentator

You can register for this event here, and find the formal invitation here.

I may as well add that this event will be kind of a homecoming event for me, as I am moving back to DC after nearly a year in Cambridge and at MIT, and this is the first formal thing I’m doing there. So I’m really honored to be involved in this very important project–one that neatly inverts the common conceit that the public needs to understand more science, and suggests that in addition, scientists also need to understand more public.

P.S.: As soon as my paper on this initiative is public, I will link to it. It is a 7,000 word essay that I’m quite proud of, and whose release is neatly timed with the paperback release of Unscientific America, many of whose themes it echoes. So….more on this soon.

Comments (7)

  1. Milton C.

    “one that neatly inverts the common conceit that the public needs to understand more science, and suggests that in addition, scientists also need to understand more public.”

    Bravo, Chris! I agree. I noticed that Bill Nye echoed the “scientists need to be better cmmunicators” in his AHA acceptance speech.

    We need more of that.

  2. GM

    “one that neatly inverts the common conceit that the public needs to understand more science, and suggests that in addition, scientists also need to understand more public.”

    So basically this means that the public know enough science, right?

  3. Ed

    Only if you read “in addition” to mean “instead”, and if you ignore the word “also”.

    Which, clearly, would make you an idiot.

  4. GM

    Imagine that I know what “in addition to” means. I also know what “inverting” means

    “one that neatly inverts the common conceit that the public needs to understand more science”

  5. GM

    Ooops, correction:

    “one that neatly inverts the common conceit that the public needs to understand more science”

  6. Mark

    Great question to be addressing Chris. Certain scientists who shall remain unnamed have put all the blame on the public. But it is essential for scientists who actually care about the public understanding of science to ask the question “do scientists understand the public” instead of just blaming the public and the media for the current situation. Whether certain individuals choose to acknowledge it or not, you are doing a great service to the public understanding of science. Keep up the good work!

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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