“I always turn to the sports section first. The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures”. ~Earl Warren
This is a quote I found at the Newseum, the only museum in the world dedicated to news. It is situated on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC, where the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was held. I had the chance to visit this museum before the congress started and, for some reason, the quote made a strong impression on me.
Some scientists today try to make up for man’s earlier failures. They try to slow down or stop the increasing temperature on this planet or to understand and help endangered species. There are also those who try to find solutions that are “better than nature”. They try to speed up nature’s own processes, or dream of human kind leaving this planet to move to a new one. There are researchers so devoted to the advancement of their technology that they do not have time to think about the consequences.
Should you be allowed to do research on everything? As a non-scientist, I find this frightening. Perhaps as a scientist I would find it equally frightening… You cannot stop evolution and humans exploring the world and space around us but you should at least be supervising the progress. Who is doing that?
The European Science Foundation (ESF) held a session on research integrity at the AAAS conference. It was called “Reaching a Global Standard in Research Integrity” and dealt with fraud, fabricating results and plagiarism. There were first hand examples from Europe, the US and Asia that showed the challenges in establishing a worldwide consensus about research integrity and how different institutions and governments are working to enhance its delivery. This is definitely a good initiative, which has an obvious place on a global level.
This was one of four sessions that I attended during the four days of the AAAS annual meeting. The other three were the Opening Ceremony where the President of AAAS, Dr. Alice S. Huang, spoke passionately about viruses, a Plenary Session about “Policy for Science, Technology, and Innovation in the Obama Administration: A Mid-Course Update” by Dr. John P. Holdren and finally another ESF session on Metacognition called “Thinking about Thinking”. What did I learn from these wide and different subjects?
Well, to my disappointment I was mostly fighting to stay awake because of the jetlag. So the scientific knowledge I was suppose to absorb with such enthusiasm became a whirl of dreamy bubbles floating around in the conference rooms. I managed to catch one or two but I only absorbed the little knowledge my brain could handle. Luckily you can read and see all the sessions here.
AAAS vs ESOF
My main task at AAAS was to represent EuroScience and the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) at our stand. We shared this stand together with the ESOF2012 team from Dublin. The next ESOF meeting will be held in Dublin, Ireland, from the 11th to 15th of July 2012.
We are looking forward to it and so were the people who stopped by our stand. There was a huge interest for our ESOF event in Ireland (a.k.a. “Dublin the City of Science 2012” by the Irish). It might also have been the flashy purple pens and the beautiful shamrock pins (still have mine) that drew people’s attention but that is what you call good advertising.
Since the ESOF started in 2004 in Stockholm it has grown considerably. Now it is the biggest trans-disciplinary scientific meeting in Europe. The AAAS is probably the biggest in the world, thus, it was interesting to see the differences and similarities between the two. You cannot really compare both meetings since AAAS started more than 150 years ago, while ESOF started not even 10 years ago, but you can get inspired.
And ESOF should be inspired: by the top-level scientific sessions, by the way AAAS handles the press and by the many social events that are held during the evenings. This is the way to make scientists network and share information. It creates a global research community and the press shares their view and vision with the public. The only thing missing is perhaps a direct link with society/the public.
This is where AAAS could be inspired by ESOF. The ESOFs are always held in different cities all over Europe and the country’s culture is always remarkably present. It creates a local flavour, almost like the Olympic Games. The whole city is sparkling of scientific life, like at Piazza Carlo Alberto or Piazza Castello in Torino, Italy, for ESOF2010 where researchers integrated directly with the public.
During the weekend of the AAAS meeting, we shared the Washington congress centre with 10 volleyball teams for high school girls. The congress centre was full of colours and young girls with families. It was an interesting mix to see the girls in sports wear (hot pants and tight t-shirts) together with the very “suity” and serious research community. In this way you can say that the researchers met the public in a direct way and not through the journalists, unfortunately, there was not much interaction.
And once more, without purpose our aim, I come back to sports. Therefore, I will do a comparison -if scientists, like sportspeople, always want to be better – to be number one – a danger of cheating, drugs and faking results will always exist. In both sports and science there are supervising committees/organisations but they have a hard time keeping up. This is a similarity based in human nature, so we should accept it and do the best we can to supervise it. But what science could and should learn from sports is the media around it. How can we engage the public in the accomplishments of research? If we could, then research would be more scrutinised and more familiar to the public.
According to the AAAS website, there were thousands of scientists, engineers, policymakers, educators, and journalists from some 50 nations who went to the 177th AAAS Annual Meeting. It was a pleasure and a privilege to take part of the event. I will now go back to my work as coordinator of EuroScience more inspired and motivated to make EuroScience a real voice on research in Europe. We want researchers all around the world to speak up and make science European, and when we reached that goal, it should become global!
- Gender equal teams do better science - 18 November, 2011
- EuroScience at AAAS - 4 March, 2011
2 thoughts on “EuroScience at AAAS”
good piece! Thank you for this valuable contribution. I hope it reaches the eyes of many scientists, science administrators and funders.
You rose a very important issue, which drives me around since a couple of years, and some more of my science journalists’ colleagues, too: Is is really possible to expel the demons by means of Beelzebub?
Society ran into most of its dilemmas _because_ of the advances in science and technology, or better: of the strong pressure to turn scientific results into exploitable technologies in order to increase profits. Although science and technology contributed a lot to energy and resource efficiency, the consequences are that heavier cars are built or that the life time of products is reduced, which destroys all attempts to make future more sustainable. So we have to think also about the economic system science is part of.
Take renewable energy attempts: The production of solar cells is by far not environmental friendly and the cells need a lot of compounds, resources which need to be exploited elsewhere with a high energy demand, leaving demolished landscapes. Also the fate of windmill vanes is still not solved. They need to be exchanged ever now and then are yet not recyclable.
Or take advances in biotechnology and medicine: I have all respect and admiration to their advances. But I have no clue, whom they will really help, except those who can pay for them, while no real advances can be seen to cure those diseases which kill most people in the world far too early, like malaria.
I put questions like these so many times to scientists, science funders and science politicians, but the only answer was: »Interesting question. We should discuss it.« but nobody really does. This is a chance for EuroScience.
You are quite right when you wrote: »There are researchers so devoted to the advancement of their technology that they do not have time to think about the consequences.«
Science is scary, indeed. It lost its connection to society as results are produced faster than people can understand it. This is not a new insight, but most current attempts to solve this dilemma failed, because they are top down attempts, from the scientific community down to the people. As long as science is seen as a driver for productivity and not as an cultural activity like arts or literature, the dilemma will remain.
Thanks again, Janna, for sharing your insights.
/ Hanns-J. Neubert
Janna sort of wrote:
If scientists always want to be better, then a danger of cheating and faking results will always exist.
This gives the logical implication:
∀x (Bx –> ∃y(Cy ^ Fy))
Regardless of wheter scientists would like to be better or not, some scientists will always cheat and fake their results. (^_^) Where is the existential bleief in humans? It’s probablly gone with the wind along with the rest of the humanities…