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Cultivating the Civic Scientist

Tomorrow's Research

Message Number: 


The article below looks at the importance of explaining science in a way

that is both understandable and meaningful to a broad audiences. It is

based on a panel presentation, "Cultivating the Civic Scientist" that took

place at the February 16, 2001 the annual meeting of the American

Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco,

California. The article is from the Stanford Report, February 20,

2001, titled: Wanted: 'Civic scientists' to educate the public, press

and policy makers. []


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Research


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Fewer than one-third of all Americans

understand the term "DNA."

Fewer than 15 percent understand the term


Only about 50 percent know that humans didn't

live at the time of the dinosaurs.

- Science & Engineering Indicators 2000,

published by the National Science Foundation

To reduce scientific illiteracy, scientists need to write and

teach about science whenever and however they can, be

connected to the news media and advise policy makers when

an important scientific question arises, say two Stanford

faculty members.

Michael Riordan, a particle physicist, spoke as part of a Feb.

16 panel called "Cultivating the Civic Scientist" at the annual

meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of

Science. Microbiologist Lucy Shapiro was scheduled to appear

on that panel as well but, at the last minute, was unable to

attend. She spoke in a recent interview.

Scientists need to speak out, Shapiro said, because without

scientific understanding, people fear things they don't

understand, the press legitimizes erroneous pseudoscience

and the government promulgates wrongheaded and

dangerous public policies.

According to Riordan, "A civic scientist is one who is willing to

engage in a dialogue about the nature of science, the future of

science and its potential impacts on society. The highest

expression of the term 'civic scientist' refers to a scientist who

disinterestedly makes his expertise available to further the welfare of the


On issues from missile defense to antibiotic resistance and

breast cancer policies, the government needs the advice that

only scientists can provide. Riordan and Shapiro both fulfill

that civic obligation, but also educate the public through their

writing and speaking.

"People are hungry to hear this stuff," Shapiro said, referring

to the public's appetite for clear explanations of science.

"Newspeople consistently underestimate the curiosity of a

typical TV audience and their tolerance for learning

something." About 15 years ago, Shapiro decided she had to do something

about it. "I lecture whenever I can because I'm

a clear speaker," Shapiro said. "Not everyone can do it, but

those who can should."

Riordan agrees that the popular press isn't capable of covering

the more difficult science. That's one reason he has written

four popular books, with a fifth on the way. "The more

complex stories may have to be written by scientists

themselves," he said.

The civic physicist

Riordan was part of the team that discovered the so-called

"top" quark at Stanford's Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in

the early 1970s. But his career has taken a different path in

the last 15 to 20 years: He writes books for the general public

about science, the history of science and science policy.

He also gets calls from the press on a regular basis and often

is quoted in newspapers and magazines. His own stories for

the New York Times and New Scientist and Science

magazines have covered such topics as the discovery of

neutrinos, the search for the Higgs boson and the need for an

American quark-busting machine.

During his career, Riordan has worked closely with a number

of people he considers great civic scientists. He points to

SLAC's Wolfgang Panofsky and Sidney Drell, whose

contributions to nuclear arms control are widely known.

Riordan himself helped formulate the American Physical

Society's recently published official position on the technical

viability of a national missile defense system, urging the

United States not to deploy such a system unless it is proven

effective against anticipated countermeasures.

But Riordan says scientists don't have to be bigshots to play

important roles in public life. "To become a scientist involved

in policy, you must spend time on committees getting to know

the policy issues and the policy makers," he said. Federal

agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the

Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the National Science

Foundation all need science advisers.

Scientists also play an important role in civic life when they

interact with the press. Unfortunately, Riordan said, many

scientists are leery of the press. "They see that the press

doesn't always get things right and it leaves out complexities

and qualifiers scientists feel are necessary to explain their


Nevertheless, scientists have to overcome their fears and

distrusts and learn to tell the public, through the news media, why it's

important to do what they do, he said: "The press is

the conduit to a large and influential audience."

The civic biologist

Lucy Shapiro, the Virginia and D. K. Ludwig Professor in the

departments of Developmental Biology and Genetics, is a

laboratory scientist, first and foremost. But about 15 years

ago she decided she could also be a civic scientist. It's hard to

do both in early stages of a scientific career, she said. When

she was an assistant and then associate professor, she was

too busy getting grants, running a lab and starting a family.

"But there comes a time in your career when you can do

more," Shapiro said. She could have written a textbook or

started a company, but making science accessible to the

public was the best fit for Shapiro's strength: public speaking.

"I'm just a run-of-the-mill scientist trying to make people less

frightened about technology," she said. "To make intelligent

decisions, there's no substitute for real information."

The talks she gives to the public often reach only a few

people, but on occasion she speaks to policy makers. At one

point, Shapiro was invited to the White House along with

several other scientists to speak to President Clinton and his

Cabinet about the risks biologically altered pathogens pose to

national security and the food supply.

After several hours of scripted presentation, the Cabinet

members were getting sleepy. When she stood up to speak,

Shapiro went off-script.

"Do you know what genetic engineering is?" she asked.

"Why don't you tell us," Clinton said.

As she spoke, Clinton shooed away aides, who were peeved because Shapiro had

made him late for other appointments.

So Shapiro taught the Cabinet members that genetic

engineering goes on in nature all the time: Bacteria can pick

up genetic material from other bacteria and add it to their

own, all without human intervention. In fact, she said, nature

added a toxin gene to the E. coli that made killers out of Jack

in the Box hamburgers in 1993. And it is nature that

encourages the evolution of bacteria into antibiotic-resistant

forms. The lesson: We have more to fear from nature than

from international terrorists.

During a videotaped talk to the National Academy of Sciences

(NAS), Shapiro delivered the same message. The tape is one

of the most commonly requested in the NAS collection.

Before she began speaking to the public, Shapiro "worked

very hard to do it right." Early on, she practiced her speeches

on her physicist husband, who had to stop her "every two

seconds to ask what a word meant." She eventually learned

that she need not use complicated lingo to get the information


Though her research involves bacteria, Shapiro also speaks

about other scientific subjects. A few years ago she decided to

address people's fears about breast cancer. She made it her

business to learn everything she could about breast cancer,

and she started speaking to groups of women about it. "This is

what is real," she told the women. "Only 5 percent of breast

cancer is inherited."

Katharine S. Miller is a science writing intern with the

Stanford News Service.