Science Leadership Conference

America is in danger of falling behind other nations in the sciences, warned Neal Lane, PhD, former science adviser to President Bill Clinton, in the keynote speech at the APA Science Directorate's 2006 Science Leadership Conference, held Dec. 1–2 in Washington, D.C.

Flatlining funding, the public's lack of science literacy and a dearth of science education are threatening America's status as a place for cutting-edge research, said Lane, a Rice University physics professor and former provost. However, politically engaged researchers can stem that tide, he said.

"Leadership means we need more civic scientists who can reach across disciplines and also effectively communicate with the public."

The first step, he noted, is to show that science is already pertinent in everyday life. Digital music players like the iPod, for instance, wouldn't exist without government-funded research on microprocessors, said Lane. Human factors research, which helps engineers make such devices user friendly, also contributed, he noted.

"We need to communicate the fact that behavioral science...is critical to getting so-called hard technologies into the public arena," Lane said.

In addition, scientists should direct their efforts toward solving the problems-in areas as diverse as public policy, health and national security-that the public deems important, said Lane.

"The American public may think of us as in our offices and silos and not so concerned with their problems," Lane noted.

But the news isn't all bad, he said. Surveys show that 60 to 70 percent of Americans are interested in scientific results and 80 percent believe that science deserves federal funding.

Researchers should build on this foundation, communicating science's value through the Web and other venues, he said.

"If this goes sour, we will not be able to repair it for a very long time," he said.

For the public to fully appreciate scientific advances, however, they need a basic foundation in science, said Lane. Unfortunately, schools seem to be falling short. For instance, 50 percent of Americans believe that dinosaurs and people lived at the same time. And perhaps more troublingly, many people don't seem to understand the way that scientists incrementally add to the store of human knowledge.

"Scientific knowledge is not a matter of opinion," Lane said.

As scientists approach the difficult task of conducting research while also making sure that science remains important to average Americans, they might look toward great American scientists such as Benjamin Franklin for inspiration he said.

"He not only did wonderful scientific experiments and thought seriously about science, but he wrote beautifully about it," said Lane.

-S. Dingfelder