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Reaching across the Endless Frontier


VANNEVAR BUSH'S ENDURING METAPHOR for science implies both a frontier space and a border. The space behind the endless frontier, like the regions behind geographical frontiers, is filled with people whose perspectives are vastly different from those prevailing within the frontier community. Some scientists like to ignore this unfamiliar place; working scientists sometimes use their activities to insulate themselves not only from issues outside their community but even from troubles within it. Perhaps this is a propitious time to try to understand the relationship between the frontier and the complex currents moving behind it.

There is a major discontinuity between scientists' views of the natural world and those held by even relatively well-educated segments of the non-scientific public. Basic conceptual differences plague scientists efforts to share the implications of their findings. To give you a well-known example, many people don't know the difference between astrology and astronomy--or even that there is a difference.

At the same time, scientists hope to give the general public of the future an improved understanding of science and the nature of its findings, so the public will be better able to confront future scientific issues as they affect personal, social, and political decisions. Less altruistic but no less important is the hope that with better understanding of science, public commitment to its support will be sustained, if not increased.

The disparity between our end-of-century scientific knowledge and the public reception of that information has yielded some regrettable policy decisions. Often the critical debates leave the actual science out of serious consideration. In such a situation it is not unfair for the public to question its investment in frontier research. If the public intends to ignore scientific knowledge, it could save a lot of money by cutting the frontier off.

It is essential, then, to ask why the public ignores scientific findings. Many scientists would answer with demeaning remarks about the populace's ignorance. Others, more sympathetic and engaged, are truly frustrated upon learning that many people actually believe in the predictive powers of astrology or are unwilling to recognize the fact of biological evolution. Such resistance is not confined to any particular segment of society; a video made at a recent Harvard commencement showed that many of the graduates had no idea why spring and summer on Earth are followed by fall and winter.

Some scientists conclude from such observations that the public is not only poorly informed but uninterested in changing, and then wash their hands of responsibility. Others are beginning to realize that scientists themselves bear much of the blame for these circumstances. And many scientists are now quite willing to talk with the press and write for the non-scientific public. In spite of all this activity, however, we are not doing well. The books get excellent reviews but don't sell many copies. Blockbusters like Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time sell copies but remain unread on coffee tables around the world. More often than not, we fail to communicate. We need to change the way we talk to the public. In the lab, if one experimental approach doesn't work, we try others. We need to experiment with new ways of communicating.

Some experiments have already been carried out. One, demonstrating the difficulties inherent in making policy in the face of uncertainty, involves the circumstantial evidence connecting some British cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease to meat (that is, muscle, but possibly contaminated with nerve tissue) from animals with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. No data were made available with the initial announcement; no new observations were published in scientific journals; the government's initial reactions were aimed at reassuring the public. Needless to say, fear and panic followed. Data from a scientific review committee were held back, thus adding to the suspicions, though none of the available data suggested an epidemic. As a consequence of the mishandling, millions of people worldwide believe in a causal relation between beef products (even milk, though there has never been evidence that it could be dangerous) and a dreadful disease. Rather than reassuring anyone, by failing to discuss the situation straightforwardly the British government fostered panic that came back to haunt it.

Communication can also fail even when the science is clear. The role of chlorfluorocarbons in the atmospheric ozone hole has been established since the 1970s. Data showing how chlorine released from CFCs destroys ozone, and correlating atmospheric CFC accumulation with Antarctic ozone disappearance, convinced 70 nations to eliminate CFC production by the year 2000. One U.S. Congress actually shortened our national elimination timetable by five years. Yet the same week the researchers involved received the Nobel for chemistry, another Congress held hearings to consider delaying the ban on CFC production. Congressional discussion denied the scientific consensus not because it was wrong but because it was contrary to the political ends some members desired. One reaction to this is to rail against 'politics,' but another is to ask why scientific considerations were less convincing than political considerations. The challenge is to find new ways to convey the science so that it is not so easy to ignore.

Biologist Tom Lovejoy has been shepherding government officials on trips to the Amazon. They return with a new understanding and commitment to the preservation of tropical rain forests in particular and the environment in general. Lovejoy's success makes news stories: Secretary of State Warren Christopher now counts environmental concerns among national security issues. Still, opposition persists in the State Department, as summarized by a quote from Tim Wirth: "Real men don't do environment."

The amazing, 40-year-long support for biological research embodied in the history of the National Institutes of Health reflects both a well-organized lobbying effort and the national desire to improve health care. The results speak for themselves. But practical benefits can't be the whole story. Anyone who has looked at the sky has wondered about the nature of the universe. Astronomy may be a sophisticated science, but its subject is in everyone's experience; with minimal practical implications, it captures people's imagination and attracts a remarkable flow of both public and private funds. Some things are not part of everyday experience, but they could be. No book or talk can match the experience a non-scientist gets from being invited into a lab to see what's there, to ask questions, to see real people working at real stuff. Why don't we invite the public in more often, as Lovejoy invites people to the Amazon?

Another thing we could do is stop speaking with certainty about uncertain things. We do not do this among ourselves; it is both disrespectful and ill-advised to do so to non-scientists. The idea of probabilities is not broadly understood, but it could be if we made the effort to explain it. If the public does not understand probability and thus risk, it is our job to teach, not wring our hands over ignorance.

In the face of uncertainty, we have to be honest and outspoken. Too many people have experienced science only in dogmatic classes that present a body of unassailable facts. We know better. Everyone should. When the pertinent available facts are insufficient to support a firm conclusion, and policy must nevertheless be made, we should stop presenting opposing views as either/or options and stop waffling about holes in scientific knowledge. We should point out that scientific disagreements indicate uncertainty and that in the end, neither view or perhaps even both may be correct. We should not let political pressures back us into scientifically indefensible corners.

Still, some challenges really seem impossible. We have problems when a scientific conclusion is relatively firm but is contrary to desired political ends. Making the scientific conclusion the desired political end, rather than slinking off disgruntled, should be our challenge. Otherwise, we are acquiescing to the continuation of a process that leads to irrational policy.

We have not used well our talents to convey the extraordinary expertise and the amazing things we have learned about the world. The ignorance behind the frontier is our responsibility as scientists; no one will know what we are doing if we don't find ways to tell them.

MAXINE F. SINGER, Ph.D., is president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. This article is adapted with permission from her 1996 William Carey Lecture to the Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; the full text of this address will appear in AAAS Science and Technology Policy Yearbook, 1996 (Washington, DC: AAAS, 1996).
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