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. [http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/report/]
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CULTIVATING THE CIVIC SCIENTIST
BY KATHARINE S. MILLER
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
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.