January 1, 2007
As scientists and educators are aware, understanding science requires more than the regurgitation of memorized facts. Science is a process and a method for explaining natural phenomena. An informed public understanding of the nature of science benefits all of society. A public with an appreciation of the nature of science contributes to the development of a skilled workforce that can compete in a knowledge-based global economy, individuals who can make more informed decisions about risk or medical treatments, and an electorate that can take part in the myriad public policy discussions involving science.
However, cultivating public understanding of science presents numerous challenges. Too few people actually understand the processes, nature, and limits of science—in other words, what science is as a field of human endeavor, and how science is done. In the absence of an improved public understanding and a willingness to engage the public on the part of the scientific community, special interests will continue to attempt to fill the void—witness the various efforts to introduce intelligent design/creationism into science curricula. In many circumstances, intelligent design advocates are able to gain sway by marketing a well-packaged campaign designed to sound like a scientific alternative to evolution.
Many members of the scientific community think that the challenges and decisions facing the public require a coordinated, sustained effort from scientists to better explain the nature of science. Leaders at the National Academies, which comprise the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council, are exploring ways to address this issue by examining science from a variety of disciplines, using the unifying theme "How do we know what we know about x?" This approach could serve as a powerful cross-disciplinary basis for the participation of many professional societies and other organizations that are concerned about the public's understanding, appreciation, and acceptance of science.
In May 2006, following a presentation by an NAS staff member to the AIBS Council of Member Societies and Organizations, the AIBS Council unanimously passed a resolution encouraging AIBS to work with other members of the scientific community to enhance the public's understanding of science, and to make the year 2009—the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his On the Origin of Species—a focal point for those efforts. In November 2006, the AIBS Board of Directors unanimously accepted the resolution from its Council.
AIBS and NAS representatives have initiated discussions with state and local scientists and education and outreach personnel from natural science museums to coordinate and enhance information exchange regarding public outreach efforts. They have also shared the concept of 2009 as a year to promote the public understanding of science with representatives from other national scientific organizations, including the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the Biotechnology Institute, the Geological Society of America, and the American Institute of Physics. The newly formed Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (www.copusproject.org) also wishes to be involved in 2009 events, as do the developers of Understanding Science, a Web site currently under construction by a team at the University of California-Berkeley, with support from the National Science Foundation.
Plans for 2009 include the following:
- Programmatic activities will be designed to enhance public understanding of the nature of science—that is, how science helps us know what we know about the natural world.
- Participating scientific societies and organizations will share information with their membership and actively conduct or coordinate programs to highlight the year of public understanding of science, such as adopting that theme for 2009 annual meetings, addressing the topic in presentations at workshops, and so on.
- AIBS will develop a Web site for the use of participating scientific organizations and members of the general public to coordinate 2009 activities; the site will include a searchable database of events, an interactive map of events, case studies, how-to stories, a press room, public service announcements, and so on.
- AIBS will help lead many of the media-relations and public-policy activities in support of the year 2009 project.
Organizations participating in this year-long series of events will become part of an informal confederation. Members of this confederation will agree to use common branding tools and, through the activities they develop, support one or more of the themes of how we know what we know about a particular phenomenon or issue from the perspective of their organization or discipline. They will provide AIBS with information about their activities and any subsequent activities that are developed as a result of their participation in 2009 events.
In return, each participating organization will have access to the brands, logos, media coverage, other publicity, and databases that are developed for the confederation. They will receive regular updates on what member organizations will be doing for the year-long celebration and will receive assistance in planning events to conform to the overall themes to be used throughout 2009. Organizations that agree by June 2007 to participate will also be able to suggest which specific crosscutting themes will be developed for 2009.
At this time, the official involvement of additional scientific organizations as well as corporate entities and grant-making partners is sought. Contact Richard O'Grady, AIBS executive director, by e-mail (rogr...@aibs.org) for further information, or go to the project's website at Year of Science 2009.