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Home > Focus > Launch of the UCS Center for Science and Democracy

Launch of the UCS Center for Science and Democracy

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 8 June 2012

On Thursday May 17th 2012 I attended the launch of The Union of Concerned Scientists' Center for Science and Democracy [2]. The launch was entitled Science and Democracy in Turmoil: Restoring a Great American Relationship and was held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Somerville Massachusetts.

The program included a welcome by Leslie Berlowitz [3], President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an introduction to the Centre for Science and Democracy by Kevin Knobloch [4], President of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a celebration of Lewis M Branscomb [5] delivered by James J. McCarthy [6] and a conversation moderated by Steve Curwood [7]. Closing remarks were delivered by Francesca Grifo [8], Director of the UCS Scientific Integrity Program.

I would like to present a short summary of each of the elements named above.

In the opening address Leslie Berlowitz outlined the work of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and explained how they had managed to influence policy and governance over the years since its foundation. She stated that their overall goal was to work towards a greater understanding of science and scientific problems on the part of the general public, and a greater understanding of society by scientists themselves.

Kevin Knobloch presented an introduction to the Center for Science and Democracy. He talked about the historical importance of science in governance citing John Adams and the great relationship that he proposed and worked for. He went on to say that this great relationship had been badly cracked and today was seriously damaged. He cited the rise in attacks on generally accepted truths and the problem of money and influence being injected into government for political motives. He called for the reinstating of the spirit of pragmatism that the county was founded upon.

He projected 3 goals for the new center, to spark discussion about scientific matters within the public and decision maker communities in order to build support for the role of science in society and its importance for democracy, to promote dialogue between experts and non experts and to challenge the application of inappropriate pressure made upon both decision-makers and scientists.

James J. Mcarthy described the forums that has been set up with the help of a donation by Lewis M. Branscomb, and presented Dr Branscomb with an award of appreciation for his dedication and generosity. He stated that the forums' goals were to try to develop solutions for the most serious scientific problems of the day such as how to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants, how to regulate and promote the development of drugs and medical devices, or study and address climate change.

Lewis M. Branscomb made a brief comment in thanks for his award in which he lauded the work of the center saying that UCS had the general public on their side in this matter, but implying that politics and politicians may have lost direction. He also mentioned a recent satirical newspaper column entitled Facts.com, a humorous look at spin in politics that he claimed was censored by several US news outlets.

The discussion panel followed and was chaired by Steve Curwood, a national radio personality. Curwood argued that his job as a journalist is to inform the public. He claimed that the risk faced today is that of the 'loss of curiosity', citing the loss of the space shuttle and US inability to deliver materials to the International Space Station as both a symptom and result. His first question was to panelist Harold Varmus [9], a Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Director of the National Cancer institute. He asked Varmus how we had got into this situation.

Varmus replied indirectly by saying that what we had to do to get out of it was to look through the scientific prism at how society and government operate. He described how the principles of scientific rigor were good principles for democracy, and argued for debate into how to implement it within the running of society. He called for a need to pull people in to science and to debate in general, saying that education was an important factor that must be addressed and not further lost. He argued that education must be evidence based in order to follow the scientific model, and argued that more people with scientific expertise should be present in government.

He concluded by maintaining that open access and a free and open Internet were crucial, and suggested that people who governed following the rules of scientific rigor should be publicly praised and popularized as heroes for democracy.

Jessica T. Mathews [10], President of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was asked the question of what the role for civil society should be in this conundrum. She answered that the first issue was to get the diagnosis of the problem right. Science she argued as a profession is healthy, but science in the public arena is not. She raised the question of how to deal with the problem of partnership, citing both the OTA and capital hill. She went on to severely criticize the Republican political party, saying that they express a distain for facts. She also mentioned problems arising from giving balanced reporting in the media, with both sides of an argument given equal space and representation in cases where only a tiny minority of scientists believes one side, the vast majority being on the other.

She went on to raise the issue of the dependence on large sums of money that political parties now have and the related rise of the lobby culture. She concluded with several examples of how the engine of change has always been civil society, citing female emancipation and civil rights among other examples of grass roots led movements.

The Chair asked his final starting question to Lawrence S. Bacow [11], President Emeritus of Tufts University. He asked him what Universities could and should do to address the situation.

Bacow responded that in his opinion society today has little respect for authority, and this leads to little respect for science. Being a meritocracy, science is an elite structure, and justifiably so, but it requires deference to people who know more than others. He argued that the Internet has played a part in this loss of respect, in that it has contributed to the creation and dissemination of 'facts' that are not based upon science. He also stated that universities were also under attack. The problem of the rising costs of a US education is making people question the value of education, is it worth the debt?

He argued that universities must play the role of conveners and bring people together. There is a need for opposite sides in arguments to meet, and to decide what actually constitutes evidence in order to allow people to reach different conclusions.

The panel was then opened to broader discussion, with members asking questions to each other. Several questions were asked and points made by both the speakers and members of the audience.

While addressing the question of reporting Mr. Curwood made a particularly interesting comment, using an addition analogy. If one party says 2 plus 2 is 4 and another party 2 plus 2 makes 5, the correct answer is not 4.5, the resulting conclusion that current reporting policies arrive at. One problem is that the use of scientific language actually raises doubt, and this can be exploited.

Ms. Mathews asked the question what have we actually lost? She pointed out that scientific understanding was not at a higher level in the past, but that now science is sold in conflict terms.

Varmus continued by arguing the point about the Internet and its effect upon the dissemination of information, by stating that the internet makes everybody's opinion true, and this creates the problem of lack of deference for someone that does in fact know more than another about a certain subject.

Bacow added to this point by arguing that there is more information available and more 'noise', stating that the political institutions had failed to act to protect the public from misinformation.

Francesca Grifo offered a summary of terms heard over the day in her concluding remarks. Among the memorable phrases were 'Everyone is permitted their own opinion, but not their own facts', 'democracy is at risk' and various quotes from Franklin and John Adams. She concluded with hopes that the Center will be a large and inclusive group of people, and called upon all communities to participate.

Upon conclusion drinks and snacks were served in the hall and discussions abounded.

Photos of the event taken by Glenn Kulbako and made available by UCS are available here.

Photos by Jonathan Hankins


(photo on top: Multidimensional [12] by toastforbrekkie from Flickr)

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] http://www.ucsusa.org/center-for-science-and-democracy/
  3. 3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leslie_Berlowitz
  4. 4] http://www.ucsusa.org/news/experts/kevin-knobloch.html
  5. 5] http://www.branscomb.org/lewis.html
  6. 6] http://chge.med.harvard.edu/about/people/james-j-mccarthy
  7. 7] http://www.apbspeakers.com/speaker/steve-curwood
  8. 8] http://www.ucsusa.org/news/experts/francesca-grifo.html
  9. 9] http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1989/varmus-autobio.html
  10. 10] http://carnegieendowment.org/experts/?fa=expert_view&expert_id=18
  11. 11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_S._Bacow
  12. 12] http://www.flickr.com/photos/toastforbrekkie/164551369
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Articles by:  Jonathan Hankins
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