There was a sense of urgency in the air at the New York Academy of Science's Symposium on "The Two Cultures in the 21st Century", presented earlier this month. The inspiration for this event was the fiftieth anniversary of a lecture, "The Two Cultures," presented on May 7, 1959 by Lord C.P. Snow at Cambridge University that discussed the growing gap between scientists and literary intellectuals in the mid-twentieth century. Lord Snow could not have anticipated that his lecture would begin a debate within the realms of science and the humanities that is as relevant today, if not more so, than when he delivered his speech.
The significance of Lord Snow's lecture was readily apparent throughout the day. Three renowned keynote speakers provided food for thought for all attendees – E.O. Wilson, Pulitzer-Prize winning Harvard biologist; the Honorable John Edward Porter, former congressman and Board Chair of Research!America; and Dean Kamen, world-famous entrepreneur, founder of DEKA and FIRST, and inventor of the Segway. In addition, four distinguished panels discussed topics such as "How to More Effectively Communicate Science Issues to the Public" and "Restoring Science to its Rightful Place in Politics."
The urgent undertone to the day revolved around the importance of all scientific disciplines (social and economic sciences, as well as life and hard sciences) in resolving many of the crises our global community faces. At the same time, the communication gap between scientists and "others", no matter how you define "others", is hampering the ability of scientists to get the support they need to address the imperative issues we all face.
One of the more interesting discussions that emerged is how to define the "second culture", assuming the "first culture" is comprised of scientists. Does Lord Snow's definition of literary intellectuals still hold today? The consensus was that it does not. Some participants proposed that the divide is really between intellectuals in general, both in the sciences and arts, versus everyone else. However, it was pointed out that many in the arts are not educated in the sciences. Others suggested the second culture could be religious people, those involved in politics or "couch potatoes." Perhaps, there are actually more than just two cultures.
In any case, it became clear very quickly that a key question is how to reach more people outside the scientific community so they understand and care about the science behind some of the crucial concerns of the day. As pointed out by the panel on science communication, the world of science writing is shrinking as the publishing industry fights for survival. With executives at the helm who have little regard for science reporting, this category is one of the first to be cut when budgets contract. There is a demand for science information, as revealed by the popularity of shows such as PBS' Nova or NPR's Science Friday radio broadcasts. However, there is still the impression among many that science doesn't sell.
At the same time, as pointed out by Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the misuse of scientific data by the Bush Administration in the United States and the attention it received demonstrates the great value placed on science in the sphere of public policy. People look to scientists as experts who will solve many of the great challenges we face. How can we take the respect accorded to scientists and add public excitement to the mix to create a groundswell of support that will result in major changes in how decisions are made and policy is implemented?
Symposium participants offered many suggestions to increase understanding and public support for scientific endeavors. There was agreement about the importance of science education for children and adults, as well as how much work there is to be done. Some ideas mentioned included teaching more history of science as a bridge between the humanities and the sciences, and training science journalists in the art of translating technological jargon into understandable and interesting writing.
A theme repeated throughout the day is the need for scientists to connect better and more often with the public in schools, the media, government, on the Internet and through other venues. Scientists must find ways to once again make science awe inspiring, as it recently has inspired more fear with issues such as global warming and swine flu. Congressman Porter encouraged more scientists to run for public office. Shawn Otto of Science Debate, Inc. wants to see more televised election debates around science-related issues. Grifo discussed the difficult culture scientists face at some universities and laboratories where engaging with the public is actually discouraged and doing so can impede professional advancement. Kevin Finnerman, Editor-in-Chief of Issues in Science and Technology, the policy journal of the National Academy of Sciences, pointed out that scientists themselves must become more open-minded to other points of view and more willing to dialogue with non-scientists.
The final keynote speaker, Dean Kamen, left us all inspired with an example of how to motivate non-scientists, in this case children, to want to learn about science. In 1989, he founded the nonprofit organization For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST). Kamen recognized that to increase the supply of science-literate citizens, you must begin by getting kids excited about science.
To do this, he thought about what excites them in modern culture, namely the entertainment and sports industries, and created a program modeled after the world of sports. FIRST partners school children with employees from science-related businesses in the U.S., such as engineering firms, and forms teams to solve engineering puzzles. The teams enter local and national competitions that award prizes for the best solutions.
In the 20 years since its inception, FIRST has reached thousands of children in the U.S. and abroad. A study conducted by Brandeis University in 2003-2004 found a significant increase (as compared to the general population of students) in the number of FIRST participants who attend college, take science courses and chose science majors. It was exhilarating to see a creative approach to teaching science really works.
Kamen's example is a wake-up call for everyone to do their part to immediately begin to engage the general public in science much more effectively. Some of the speakers emphasized that each of us should use our strengths to get this job done. Those with good speaking skills should get out there and dialogue with adults from other industries and spheres of influence or reach out to principals and teachers in schools. The writers among us should be more diligent to write books and articles that the public can understand. If you've toyed with the idea of running for public office, perhaps seriously consider doing so. Others could advocate within universities or laboratories to change the culture to encourage engaging with the public. Just think of something to do and then go do it!