Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the president’s address and to the formal opening of the 2017 Annual Meeting of the AAAS. It’s great to be here.
I’d like to first thank Rush Holt and Barbara Schaal for the very kind invitation to offer welcome remarks to this group and more importantly for their leadership — great leadership. I want to add a personal note, too. During my time at Princeton, where I spent a long time, Rush represented my district in Congress. My car was proudly adorned with this marvelous bumper sticker that said, “My congressman is a rocket scientist.” A lot of people had them.
Each year, this meeting draws together a group of scientists, scholars and others who are interested in science to recognize advances in scientific research and discovery. And in doing so we affirm our faith in what we can observe and test and validate and replicate and therefore know to be true. We affirm that evidence-based facts, not alternative facts based on opinion and belief, are our currency as scientists.
Now, while this meeting, as always, will celebrate scientific discovery, I know that there will also be much discussion about risks and threats to the scientific enterprise that all of us are concerned about.
Today, our community is galvanized by very real concerns — possible reductions in federally funded science research — maybe that’s a perennial concern; the fear of clampdowns on science communications issued by federal agencies; and an executive order on immigration that has sent an extremely unwelcoming message to researchers and students from abroad and has hampered research efforts. I would say that almost a more existential concern is that what scientists do — the work that we are committed to throughout our lives — is increasingly undervalued.
In turn, sign-on letters have been circulated, marches have been planned, and an organization preparing scientists to run for public office has been formed. Clearly there is something going on. Clearly a line has been crossed.
But the truth is, we’ve seen this movie before. Politically and socially motivated assaults on academia and science aren’t new. They have flared and dissipated dating all the way back to the Scopes trial. More recently, we’ve seen state legislation banning the use of scientific estimates of future sea level rise in coastal protection planning. We have seen states reject National Academy of Sciences education standards because they include discussion of evolution, climate change and embryonic stem cells.
At various times in our history, the science community has been compelled to respond to waves of science denial and threats to open public dialogue around scientific issues. While there is a great deal of uncertainty about how the issues that we’re concerned with now will play out, I think it is safe to say that we have arrived at another of these moments. And so as before, we will refine the case for science. We'll redeploy its explanatory power.
I would highlight three themes that we need to communicate loud and clear — things that I hope we all stand for.
The first is that we stand for science as an engine of economic growth and prosperity. One of the major first lessons of any economics student is that long-run economic growth is driven by technological change and increases in knowledge.
Now, a corollary is that gains in technological change and advancements in knowledge are not all distributed evenly. Those gains can result in inequality. I believe we have a responsibility to grapple with this fact, address this fact, although without slowing the pace of discovery.
Second, and this is the theme of this conference, we stand for science as the basis for sound policy. We know that evidence-based policymaking works — that policies based on credible scientific work produce positive health outcomes, keep people safe, improve the quality of drinking water, improve access to education and jobs, and protect our planet.
Third, we stand for science as a global public good. This reflects the comments that Gerry [Richmond] made in her opening. Yes, the AAAS is an American society, but we all recognize the global nature of our business. We know that engaging people from all around the world — the best, the brightest, the most diverse thinkers from everywhere — enriches the quality of scientific discovery and adds to the global marketplace of ideas.
So what can we do? Our challenge is to present research in ways that cast science as a collaborative undertaking for the public good, as a pathway to prosperity, as a source of innovation that enriches people’s lives. And in a material world where material solutions are demanded to poverty and to disease, to illiteracy and conflict, evidence of impact goes a long way toward building a public trust and confidence around the value of science.
At the same time, we also have to do something that’s even harder, though, which is to learn to tell stories of how basic scientific research, which may not have an immediate practical impact, builds the essential base for the applied science work that comes sometimes years and years later.
Over the course of these meetings, I hope that one thing we’ll all think about is the best way to tell the stories of why our collective work is vitally important.
In closing, I want to give you a small bit of Brown University irony in my presence here — within the last hour, Brown Professor of Biology Ken Miller delivered a campus lecture titled, “Science Denial: from Anti-Vaxers and Climate ‘Skeptics’ to the Ark Park — Why it Continues and Why it Matters.” If I hadn’t been here, I would have been there. And Professor Miller, as some of you may recall, was here at the AAAS annual meeting last year revisiting lessons of the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case challenging the teaching of intelligent design in public school science classes as an alternative to evolution.
I’ll close with an observation from Professor Miller, who reminded us in 2014 that: “Science is not a body of knowledge. It’s more than that. It a way of thinking. It’s a search for truth that illuminates every aspect of the human condition.”
So let’s go on being who we are, doing what we do and sharing it with the world. Let’s go on with our research. With that, I want to thank you and I hope you all have a very productive and enjoyable meeting. Thank you very much.