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Opening the Doors of the Ivory Tower: Should scientists actively try to restore a diminishing public and political presence?

November 2006--The Nobel Prize-winning Peter Agre, fondly recalls the golden age of science.

 “In the post-Sputnik era, science was king,” he says. “Scientists were visible everywhere; Werner Von Braun was teaching kids about rocketry on TV; Richard Feynman was writing his wildly entertaining books; Jonas Salk was a national hero. But we don’t seem to have that anymore,” he adds ruefully. “I think we need to take the hard edge off of research and affirm to people that we are all human beings.”

The halcyon days of public perception may indeed be gone. Recent polling shows some 80 percent of the general public can’t name a living scientist, and the most common response among those who can is the family doctor.

But is the anonymous scientist reason for concern? As long as researchers conduct experiments and publish results, isn’t that enough to advance the cause? Why should they bear the extra burden of “taking it to the streets” when we have journalists and university liaisons or even the National Academy of Sciences for that purpose?  

“It’s crucial that scientists get their information to the public,” says Molecular Biology and GeneticsSe-Jin Lee. “We all know that in the purest sense, we’re obligated to share results widely, given that the majority of our funding comes from public sources. But more philosophically, people have to understand where science is going, to know what is and isn’t possible, especially in biomedicine with its direct impact on human health.”

Lee draws from personal experience. In 1997, after publishing his work on the myostatin gene—its deletion doubled mouse muscle mass—and after resulting media attention hit, he says, “like a ton of bricks,” he came to realize “how very eager people out there were to get information.” Some were interested in medical applications, but many wrote or called him in the context of athletic performance. His research appeared in outlets ranging from science journals to bodybuilding magazines, and though most accounts were fine, those that weren’t added work to Lee’s already full schedule. So whenever an opportunity presented itself, Lee went out of his way to talk publicly and steer discussions about his work in the right direction. “The more I could set the record straight, the better.”

Accuracy is especially critical when scientific issues intersect politics, occasions that demand articulate scientists as spokespersons, rather than, say, celebrities or local politicians.

But as important as it is for researchers to react to public perception of a particular study, many feel that doesn’t go far enough. Agre, for example, acts as a public advocate for science:  visiting schools, writing op-eds, appearing on news programs—whatever it takes.  He and others initiated a grassroots organization called Scientists and Engineers for America. SEA, which swelled to nearly 7,000 members in a few months, is dedicated to raising local community involvement and ensuring that political officials speak candidly about science.

A more urgent target audience than the politicos, however, lies in America’s schools. “Across the board, science education is hurting,” says Lee. “Most kids don’t see a lot of reasons to go into science, so they concentrate on more visibly affluent athletics or business.” Lee says this has created concerns at higher academic levels. “For many graduate science programs, if you were to remove the foreign influence, you wouldn’t have a viable program left.”

Restoring science’s lost allure to U.S. students will take effort, though. It may require some scientists to reach an iconic level, something not seen since the days of Carl Sagan. Of course, a fine balance exists between science and celebrity; many researchers get uncomfortable as they tip toward the latter. Sagan himself was roundly criticized by some for being a self-promoter.

Even the self-effacing Agre, now emboldened, discussed SEA on the Colbert Report. “The public doesn’t read as much as it used to,” he says, “so getting on a show with 4 million viewers, most within the 18-to-34 demographic, provides a good forum.”

Though a few eyebrows were raised, Agre enjoyed his TV appearance and says the producers want to have scientists appear more regularly. “Who knows?” he adds. “Maybe science has found a new friend.”

--Nick Zagorski