Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It's just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it's like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action.
Carl Sagan, 1996, The Demon-Haunted World
Since 1945 with the publication of "The Endless Frontier" by Vannevar Bush, the United States has pursued a highly successful national policy of investing in and promoting science and technology for our nation's well-being and security. Indeed, estimates are that as much as 85% of the nation's per capita economic growth is attributable to scientific and technologic advances (COSEPUP, 2005). However, recent disturbing trends indicate that the United States is falling behind in both science and technology and that our leadership in these fields is at risk. Growing concerns about the state of science in the United States have garnered national attention of key sectors of society business, research, and education. As noted within a recent report published by fifteen prominent business organizations, "virtually every major respected organization representing business, research and education, as well as government science and statistics agencies and commissions, has extensively documented the critical situation in U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics" (Business Roundtable 2005).
At the same time, there appears to be broad consensus that the entire scientific ethos is under assault by uninformed or intentional forces. Science is poorly understood and often misrepresented to the public, the news media, and to political decision-makers. Informed understanding of the nature and value of science is necessary in order to regain public endorsement of the scientific enterprise and public support for efforts to preserve America's scientific leadership.
In recognition of this need, a small but diverse group of people came together to discuss strategies for addressing these concerns and for re-engaging the public in science. This report summarizes the discussions and outcomes of this workshop, focusing on a recommended national campaign to increase the public understanding and appreciation of science.
There continues to be concern among a broad spectrum of the scientific, education, and business communities that science and our leadership in science are at risk. To examine the level of this decline, Representative Frank Wolf asked a group of scientists how well the United States was doing in science and innovation. None of the scientists, he reported, said that the nation was doing "okay". About 40% said that we were "in a stall", and the remaining 60% said that we were "in decline". He asked a similar question of the executive board of a prominent high-technology association, which reported that in its view; the United States was "in decline" (COSEPUP, 2005). The seriousness of these concerns moved to center stage across the country in 2005 with the publication of three major reports: Tapping America's Potential, produced by the Business Roundtable, Rising Above the Gathering Storm from the National Academy of Sciences, and the report from the National Summit on Competitiveness convened at the U.S. Department of Commerce in December 2005.
The United States is in a fierce contest with other nations to remain the world's scientific leader. But other countries are demonstrating a greater commitment to building their brain power. This excerpt from the 2005 Business Roundtable report indicates the seriousness with which the business community views the steady decline in America's pre-eminence in science and technology. Within its recommendations, the report called for "a campaign to help parents, students, employees and community leaders understand why math and science are so important to individual success and national prosperity."
Having reviewed the trends in the United States and abroad, the NAS report by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy included the statement that the committee is deeply concerned that the scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength.
At the same time that Congress and the business and research communities were recognizing the decline in the scientific leadership, science education was on the defense in many states across the U.S. with attempts to include intelligent design as a theory in the science classroom and the redefinition of science by the Kansas State Board of Education in May 2005, such that supernatural phenomena can be included. Besides the teaching of evolution in public schools, debates rage over the existence, impacts, and remedies of global climate change, stem cell research, cloning, and a host of other scientific topics. Concerns have been rising over the seeming politicization of scientific results and the misrepresentation of scientific research and the scientific process across all scientific disciplines. Of equal concern is that these assaults on science and scientists are turning away student interest in the field and that public appreciation and support of science is diminishing.
In response to these concerns, a workshop, or "meeting of the minds," was held in Berkeley, CA, January 25-27, 2006, that brought together a small, but diverse group of people to initiate discussions on the creation of a cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural effort that would focus on improving the public understanding of and engagement in science.
Participants included representation from government, professional societies, research, universities, museums, business, and the media. A concept paper entitled, A Coalition for the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) was distributed among the participants to initiate discussion. The workshop participants concurred that science is under assault and that there are widespread concerns about U.S. investment in science, and that economic competitiveness is at risk. They also agreed that many business, government, science, and education groups are addressing aspects of these concerns in different ways, and from different perspectives.
Discussions focused on the need to re-engage the public in science, how the public currently interacts with and learns about science, formulating and delivering the right message, creating and sustaining a networked campaign for science, and recommendations and next steps.
Conclusions of workshop
Participants felt that this workshop was a critical first step in a much larger effort. The next step will be to (1) develop a COPUS website to provide documentation of progress and access to informative resources and (2) convene a second workshop to (1) build further consensus, (2) articulate the characteristics, strategies, organization, and activities of such a network, and (3) develop plans for implementation. Furthermore the participants agreed to continue to work together as a Steering Committee toward this effort and developed an outline for the proposed second workshop. A proposal for this second workshop was submitted to NSF for consideration.
There is a need for continued dialogue to move the COPUS initiative forward and thus the recommendation for the second workshop to expand discussions, incorporate additional perspectives and expertise and then to articulate a strategic plan that will have both a short term and long term impact on the public support of and interest in science. The Business Roundtable report called for "a campaign to help parents, students, employees and community leaders understand why math and science are so important to individual success and national prosperity." They designated this campaign as the responsibility of the business community. We would argue that no single community can work alone on this effort, but that it will require a collaborative effort of all stakeholders: those who practice science, those who teach and communicate about science, those who implement the scientific enterprise, and those who benefit from it. This has to be a long-term effort that keeps science in the forefront and enables all sectors of the American public to re-engage in science.
Business Roundtable. July 2005. Tapping America's Potential: The Education for Innovation Initiative. Washington DC.
Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. 2005. Rising above the gathering storm: Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future. National Academy Press, Washington D.C. On-line prepublication
Leshner, A. Science, February 10, 2006, v311, p741