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Science is not “just another belief system,” says AAAS president

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, attendees confront a new troubling reality


It did not take long at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston for questions to be raised about the new U.S. administration and the challenges it poses to science. In the opening minutes of the AAAS meeting last night, board chair Geraldine Richmond noted that some scientists stayed away because of U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order signed on January 27 banning citizens of seven majority Muslim countries from entering the U.S. “Science depends on openness, transparency and the free-flow of ideas and people,” said Dr. Richmond.

The travel ban is currently suspended by the courts, but the president recently vowed to write a new executive order to replace it.

The theme of this year’s edition of the largest general science gathering in the world — which has attracted 9,000 scientists, science agency leaders and media — is science and policy. AAAS President Barbara Schaal, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, noted that the theme was selected more than a year ago, with an eye to adjusting to a new administration after the November presidential election.

With any change in administration there is always some uncertainty, said Dr. Schaal, “although I think this is a time of unanticipated uncertainty — and it’s been a challenge.”

The case for science has to be made forcefully and repeatedly, said Dr. Schaal. That’s not only in response to the new administration, but also because of what she described as the erosion of the “position of science” across the U.S. and around the world over the past 10 years. She shared her concern that science could be “seen as just another belief system,” adding: “We have to make again the case for the role of science in policy. … Science is a public good. And we have a great story to tell.”

Dr. Schaal also expressed concern over a “dampening” of the international nature of science.

“Science is without borders … and the U.S. has benefited probably more than any other country from the international nature of science” by attracting top researchers from around the world.  “Policies in the U.S. and across the globe must keep science international,” she said.

“Allow the best and the brightest from the world to come and to live and to work here.”

Among specific concerns about the transition to the new U.S. administration, Dr. Schaal cited the lack of appointments to key science leadership positions. It is “essential that key science advisory and agency chief scientist positions are filled quickly,” she said. “Our concern is that there may be unexpected and very urgent crises that appear” and the U.S. ability to respond will be hampered.

The worry is not primarily due to the timing delay in making these appointments, she said, but the “stunning silence” on the matter. “There’s not much chatter going on.”


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  1. Jim Clark / February 22, 2017 at 14:19

    Although University Affairs is to be lauded for including this brief statement about science not being just another belief system, UA and other academic organizations have done much to promote the idea of multiple ways of knowing. The idea that there are ways of determining facts about the world equivalent to science would seem to promote the idea that science is indeed just another belief system, like so many others entertained by diverse cultures around the world. Perhaps Trump’s alternative facts as determined by Conservative ways of knowing is just one product of this relativism?

  2. Shahid Ahmed / February 22, 2017 at 14:46

    I firmly believe in “science is a public good”, however to make it true, lot more needs to be done, theme of the conference “Science and Policy” truly reflects this concern, it’s indeed a matter of gratitude and satisfaction that leaders of scientific community are showing their concern on this extremely important matter.

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