It's kind of ironic that the one day I was actually able to make the 8:30 a.m. talk was the final day of the conference. I guess part of it was that I skipped the apparently epic party the night before. :)
I'm glad that I was able to make it to the talk since it was one that was about something that I think about a lot "The Evolving Context for Science and Society", presented by Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Interestingly, before Leshner, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Tx) spoke for a few minutes (he wasn't on the program and came over at the last minute from a nearby function). I wish I had a recorder with me since I would like to be able to quote some of the stuff he said so I "un-spin" the politics from it. Also, I would to have had a chance to ask him why, if he is the science fan and champion he claims to be, he authored a bill that would have broken the internet.
A lot of what Leshner was talking about was stuff that I already know about and think about, but I'd be willing to bet that some fraction of the audience hadn't. I posted a lot to Twitter about this, so most of what I'm writing here was compiled from those tweets.
Leshner started out by laying out the case for why the general public needs to have some fundamental understanding of science: because it is in every part of our lives now. Then he moved on to the conflicts between science and society. He first looked at legitimate problems that science has such as ethics violations, exaggerated claims, etc. that cause poor views of scientists. There are also problems that scientists face, such as poor funding (he had an interesting remark about how he hears people now saying they are happy when they have flat funding as opposed to taking budget cuts). Leshner did have nice words for how astronomy does decadal surveys and that most other science fields don't.
Leshner then moved on to the conflicts between science and the public, including what the causes behind those conflicts might be. Part of it is that people have little understanding of what is and what is not science, giving examples such as ESP, evolution denial, astrology. Another factor is tension of science conflicting with political and economic issues, the prime example being global warming. There is also when science conflicts with core human values, such as research on embryonic stem cells. In addition, generally speaking, the public does not feel immediate consequences of science denial, although scientists to (for example, public opinion calling for elimination of stem cell research - the funding gets axed but the public might not realize that the research was beneficial to them until it is too late).
So, how do we fix this?
Leshner said that education is important, but that we can't just educate our way out of the problem. We need to change our approach and engage with the public - talk WITH instead of just TO the public. Personal engagement works best, let people actually see what you do. (Possibly not as big a deal with astronomers, but I could see how this would be particularly important in the biological sciences.) One of the more quotable lines (and it got me several re-tweets) was "some scientists are bad at speaking, but some also aren't good at listening.". His core point at the end: "the science-society relationship needs constant attention."
Some thoughts I have on the talk - I definitely agree with Leshner's approach, but sometimes those initial conversations of trying to talk WITH (as opposed TO) the public can be difficult when the people you are trying to engage don't have some basic level of understanding. When I tweeted to that effect, I was mainly thinking of people who have been literally calling for years who are scared of 2012 doomsday nonsense. When I try to deconstruct the claims that they have heard it can be quite difficult because the caller doesn't have a basic grasp of astronomy or how the sky works. I don't necessarily have the time to break it down to the basics and give them an introductory lecture on astronomy. And I've found that just as soon as I start trying to explain one claim, it brings up another! (Yes, I'm afraid my frustration is coming through...).
I certainly don't have all the answers for how to fix these problems, and unfortunately there will be some people that will be unreachable no matter what (due to strongly-held religious beliefs, retreating into conspiracies or what have you...). I don't recall Leshner addressing the media's role in the equation much, and that is certainly something else to consider. One of these days I'll try to write some more of my thoughts on all of this, but suffice to say the talk got me thinking about it even more than I already do!
After Leshner's talk I went to one of the Exoplanets sessions. I had expected this to be the last science session I would get to, but it turned out my tear-down duites didn't take the whole 5 hours I had been scheduled for. So, I grabbed a sandwich and ate (as quietly as possible) during my co-worker Don Winget's talk "White Dwarf Stars from the Telescope to the Laboratory and Back Again: Exploring Extreme Physics". The white dwarf team here at UT does a lot of neat work and they've hooked up with people who are able to simulate white dwarf atmospheres in the lab. Cool stuff!
I checked in with the organizers and they didn't need help at that moment, so I managed to sneak in to another science session: "Kepler Observations of Exoplanets and Systems". While there I spotted Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute! One of the talks in that session was about my new favorite term: exomoons. Yes, moons around planets in other solar systems. Kepler hasn't found any yet, but it's only a matter of time! There was an interesting question as to whether that project was also looking for evidence of rings around the Kepler planets. They aren't but they are flagging potential candidates for other researchers to follow up with. One of the final talks was on circumbinary planets (think Tatooine), given by Bill Welsh whom I knew when he was a post-doc here at UT. Here's the press release on the research: NASA Discovers New Double-Star Planet Systems
Well, that's it for AAS 219! The next time the general session meeting comes back to Texas it won't be here in Austin, so I'm not sure whether I will go or not. I have a few years to decide though!