Friday, February 14, 2003

Science stresses out:
One traditional response of the scientific community to what it views as a lack of appreciation or misinterpretations by the public has been to mount so-called public understanding or education campaigns designed to "enlighten" the populace, either about science in general or specific issues in particular. Some initiatives have been quite successful. Examples include campaigns about the dangers of air pollution and high blood pressure, and the negative health effects of smoking and lack of exercise.

But simply trying to educate the public about specific science-based issues is not working. Many science skeptics are already quite well educated, but they relate more to the risks of science and technology advances than to their benefits. Moreover, given the uncertainties in science, the best science-based strategy is not always as clear as we would like and as many in our community might claim. And widely publicized examples of scientific dishonesty, like the Schön case, or unacceptable scientific practice, like the Lomborg affair or repeated unverified claims of human cloning, are not only misleading but seriously erode the public's trust in science.

The centrality of science to modern life bestows an obligation on the scientific community to develop different and closer links with the general population. That convergence will help evolve the compact between science and society so that it will better reflect society's current needs and values. We need to move beyond what too often has been seen as a paternalistic stance. We need to engage the public in a more open and honest bidirectional dialogue about science and technology and their products, including not only their benefits but also their limits, perils, and pitfalls. We need to respect the public's perspective and concerns even when we do not fully share them, and we need to develop a partnership that can respond to them.

To help forge this new relationship between science and society, the AAAS is now putting together a new Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. This center will include our expanding educational programs about science and technology but will also provide a new forum through which the critical dialogue with the public can more easily occur. By more fully engaging the public with science, its priorities, and its portrayal, we hope to make more meaningful the fact that, like it or not, science is an ever-more pervasive way of life for all people.

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