An Open Letter to Scientists and Engineers
Let's Get the Word Out Together about Why Science Matters
by Neal F. Lane
(Former) Director, National Science Foundation
We are enjoying a golden age of discovery, as exciting research continues
to uncover new knowledge about our universe. However, a different kind
of golden age -- that of ever increasing funding for American science
and engineering -- is clearly over. Some experienced researchers now look
back nostalgically to the decades after World War II, when taxpayer support
of science was almost unquestioned and an agenda for science was rarely
Today, public support must be earned. We can no longer expect it in
the form of a blank check and an undefined agenda. This is entirely appropriate.
At the same time, I remain very concerned that the nation will not be
doing enough to maintain and strengthen its position as a world leader
in science and engineering over the next several years.
It is now more vital than ever for us, the research community, to make
a convincing case to the public about the tangible societal benefits that
flow from science and technology, and the importance of investing adequately
in research and education.
At the National Science Foundation, our surveys continue to show that
more than two-thirds of the public believes that science is a net good.
But the vast majority of people have no understanding of the scientific
process; 98% of them don't know what research means. This gap should trouble
all of us.
It is also troubling that many scientists and engineers, while concerned,
do not think they can do anything about the gap. This may be because traditional
scientific education does not prepare its graduates very well to assume
a role as an activist in society, an ambassador for science.
I well understand the discomfort, from my own career experience. But
during my years as director of NSF, I've come to understand the need for
the research community to reach out to the public. In more personal terms,
we need to engage in genuine public dialogues with our local communities,
in the mold of what I call the "civic scientist." This concept embraces
many types of outreach; not every researcher is well-suited (or available)
for a particular type of activity, at a given time. But a little more
awareness can go a long way. Even describing a current research effort
in accessible terms to a neighbor can have unexpected -- and sometimes
unknown -- results.
I might even venture to say that such outreach should be numbered among
the professional responsibilities of scientists and engineers, and that
graduate education in science and engineering should emphasize communication
skills along with research skills. The result would be much better teachers
and communicators to the public.
Preparation for research careers has not focused on this dimension,
and most of us could use some help. I have been urging researchers to
seek out and take advantage of the public affairs resources at their own
institutions in making a compelling case to the public.
One particularly effective means to make our case is through the news
media, a type of outreach that, perhaps more than others, fills many of
us with trepidation. According to survey results discussed recently on
National Public Radio, a quarter of U.S. scientists have never spoken
to a reporter, and most others do so only once every year or two. Our
public affairs resources are particularly valuable here. Practice is essential;
we simply must learn to speak in terms that the general reporter -- representing
our non-scientist friends and neighbors -- can understand. The impact
can be astounding, because the news media amplify our words. (And this
cuts both ways.) With only one interview, we can reach people across the
state or the nation.
Let us redouble our efforts to work together. When a newsworthy discovery
is made or about to be published, NSF would like to join with you to get
the message out. In this way, the story will reach a much larger audience;
and that will be good for all of us, and good for the nation.
It is true that the climate for science has changed forever. But change
brings opportunity. If the sobering budget outlook prompts us all to communicate
more broadly, more frequently and more effectively, then we have learned
an important and necessary lesson that will serve the science and engineering
community well in any climate.