Why is COPUS needed?
Science has driven technological advances that make the U.S. a global economic and military superpower. Yet concerns are being voiced from all sectors business, academia, educators, Congress that science is under assault, that there is a growing disinterest and in some cases, actual hostility to science. As a result, the U.S. is falling behind.
For sixty years in this country, there has been a symbiotic relationship between science and industry. The scientific enterprise, supported by federal funding to scientists and science educators, has resulted in advances that have helped to drive the U.S. economy. In turn, industry has supported federal science programs and invested its own resoures. That system is now in jeopardy. The nature of science is being successfully challenged, reducing the interest in and support for it, and thus reducing the flow of people and ideas to industry.
Regardless of whether you categorize our current situation as a stall or decline, there is general agreement that America's dominance in science and innovation is slipping.
Just look at three measuring sticks: patents awarded to American scientists; papers published by American scientists; and Nobel prizes won by American scientists. All three are down.
Many Americans are unaware of this trend. They also have no idea what this could mean to our economy and our national security.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), in a May 12, 2005 press conference
Informed understanding of the nature and value of science is necessary if the public is going to support efforts to maintain the scientific enterprise that has been so successful in this country, both in advancing scientific understanding and in promoting economic development. Science is poorly understood and often misrepresented to the public, the news media, and to political decision-makers.
Although the public is fascinated by science, generally there is little understanding of how it operates. As a result, pseudo-science, junk science, and scams are prevalent and often difficult for the layperson to recognize. Scientific information about issues such as global warming, or new medical applications such as stem cell research may be viewed as inconsistent or even threatening to a society overwhelmed by the implications of rapid technological change. This is particularly true of those who fear or resist change. Adding to the confusion are the well-publicized messages by those who capitalize on politicizing or demonizing science to promote non-scientific agendas.
Science only functions with the presumption of honesty. It flounders when confronted by those who knowingly and willingly distort the truth. But this is exactly what faces scientists as we attempt to defend science in high-school classrooms against intelligent design (ID).
Lawrence Krauss, New Scientist, July 9 2005, Creationism special: Survival of the slickest
Some of the most effective promotion of science to the public is through popular publications (Popular Science, Science News, etc.) and television shows (Discovery channel, National Geographic channel, etc). These outlets promote public understanding and acceptance of science implicitly. They do not typically explain what the nature of science is and what it is not. For all the good that they do, they are countered by equally prevalent non-science (astrology, UFO abductions, supernatural manifestations) presented in the popular media with as much credibility as real science. Thus, the public is bombarded with conflicting representations and little in the way of tools to discriminate between them.
The lack of public understanding, and in some cases misrepresentation of science, is a national crisis and should be a concern to all scientists, science educators, business leaders, and public policy officials. In large part, the current attacks on evolution are symptomatic of this general misunderstanding of what science is and what it is not. We need to develop a coherent, comprehensive message a redundant message that can be applied to biology, agriculture, medicine, seismology, physics, biochemistry, paleontology, and so on. We need to "market" the scientific process, using the 10 million scientists and scientifically literate members of society as emissaries to the broader public. If we keep sending a coordinated message about how science proceeds with the premise that eventually the message will stick then attacks on science will fail the test, unwarranted fears of societal change triggered by new discoveries can be assuaged, and the contributions of science can be valued sufficiently to promote its continued advancement and contributions to the nations well-being and national security.
If scientists wish to market evolutionary bioscience and geoscience to a broader audience, we must begin by "marketing" science itself.
Sorena Svea Sorenson, National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC EOS, 28 June 2005
What is being done?
Many organizations have responded to the ongoing assaults on evolution and particularly the teaching of evolution in public schools. These efforts include publications, websites, symposia, and networks for communication. There is growing recognition that the problem goes beyond evolution and that science itself is under attack. To this end, AGU held a symposium on this subject at their December meeting, and AAAS has one planned for theirs. AAAS has also established a new Center for the Public Engagement with Science and Technology (AAAS-PE), which would provide an open forum for addressing the public's concerns regarding science.
The Business Roundtable, comprised of the leading industry and trade associations, released a report in July, 2005, Tapping Americas Potential, that documents the nation's drop in scientific and technological competitiveness, and offers a set of initiatives to reverse the decline. The report conclusions identified roles for business and government in implementing recommendations.
Congress also addressed the rising concern about U.S. competitiveness at a national Innovation Summit held in late 2005 that brought a large representation of the nation's technology industries together with government policy-makers.
These are independent efforts, each from a different perspective, but all with a common goal strengthening science in our schools and increasing the public understanding of and appreciation for science.
What is missing or not being done?
At this point, there is:
What would COPUS do?
The primary function of COPUS will be to build on current efforts by providing an on-going networked effort across all science disciplines and between the science and business communities. It will serve to develop, promulgate, and implement coordinated strategies to support and promote the public understanding of science. As such, it will engage in the following activities:
Specific products and programs of COPUS
What would COPUS look like?
COPUS should be a distributed consortium a national network composed of a small coordinating center connecting partners and regional hubs that collectively represent all fields of science, as well as offering expertise in outreach and communication. The network will link universities, scientific societies, science advocacy groups, science media, informal science centers, government, trade groups and businesses.
We propose to establish a Coalition for the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), which will function to improve the public's understanding of the nature and value of science. By engaging the nation's scientific, business, and education communities in a coordinated, comprehensive national program, we can work together to:
COPUS will provide resources to promote widespread public understanding of science. It will offer a safety net for scientists and science in an environment in which both are under fire from ideological and political forces. It will focus on the positive aspects of science; its role will be to educate.
We propose the establishment of the Coalition for the Public Understanding of Science at a critical time a time at which America's global science leadership is slipping and attempts to redefine the fundamental nature of science further threaten its major contributions to the economic well-being and security of the nation. We simply cannot afford to let that happen.
Just as the scientific community has broad responsibilities to monitor the integrity with which its members conduct their work, it also must take some responsibility for the uses of science and for how it is portrayed to the public. That requires us to be clear about what science is and to distinguish clearly between scientific and belief systems, in schools and in various public venues devoted to science. Otherwise, we will fail in our obligation to our fellow citizens and to the successor generations of students who will depend on science for their future.
Redefining Science [editorial], Alan I. Leshner, Chief Executive Officer, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science, Vol 309, Issue 5732, 221, 8 July 2005