Year of Science promotes scientists' responsibility to educate

By Andy Oram
December 17, 2008

I was excited to hear of a nationwide Year of Science initiative that starts off with a Boston-based conference in the first week of January. This conference will help people working in the sciences learn how to educate the wider public about what they do, why it's important, and what its implications are for public policy.

I believe the conference focuses on small-scale public interventions such as science fairs, weblogs, and cafes, but I'm sure it will also talk about using the mainstream media (after all, one of the keynotes is by Ira Flatow, host of of Science Friday) and influencing public policy.

The year 2009 is an exciting one for science because the United States has a new administration that seems to demonstrate a new respect for what scientists can say to politicians. (For instance, actual scientists are being appointed to scientific positions.) Furthermore, an organizer of the Year of Science told me of some interesting anniversaries in 2009:

  • The 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of the telescope, which some people consider the beginning of science as we've understood it for past several hundred years (although his work on falling bodies may be a more direct example of the invention of experimental science)
  • The 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of Species

The earnest efforts of scientists to explain themselves to the public, reflects an interesting shift.

I've long had the impression that geneticists, astrophysicists, etc. didn't like to call themselves "scientists." They'd say "I'm a geneticist" or "I'm an astrophysicist" and distance themselves from the enormous umbrella of "science." This tendency can be compared to a Navaho or Cherokee who resists being called a "Native American" or "American Indian"--who wants to be lumped together with people who are very different?

But now scientists are becoming aware that they face indifference and ignorance in very similar ways, and can benefit from dealing with the problems as a group. And although I don't like to descend too deeply into cynicism, I think eight years of being shoved down the plumbing by the Bush administration has woken scientists up to the dangers their disciplines face if the public doesn't appreciate what they have to say.

When I went to college, the science departments in that school offered no courses for students who wanted basic scientific literacy. Each department had one mandate, and one only: to produce the next generation of people to take permanent jobs in that field. They started off each candidate with rigorous and time-consuming courses on introductory topics that reflected little of what made their fields exciting.

Of course, how many graduates would actually get full-time jobs in the field? How much would the field have benefited from helping students from other disciplines take a course or two that led them to understand and support the role of these sciences in modern society? If my college had helped me get the background I wanted, it might be getting bigger contributions from me.

Luckily, universities are changing. They're loosening their views of scientific fields through the necessity of cross-disciplinary courses and collaboration. They're offering more basic courses for non-majors. And after the Year of Science we'll all hopefully be further ahead.

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