Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE February 1997

Carl Sagan's Legacy: Making Science Popular

With the passing of Carl Sagan a few days before Christmas, the scientific community lost one of its most effective and charismatic spokesmen. Millions who watched his popular "Cosmos" series on public television will not soon forget the wonder and awe in his voice as he spoke of the stars in the night sky and the incredible expanse of the universe.

Sagan helped to establish astronomy's hold on the public's imagination and interest. His death warranted notice on network news programs and on the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and -- more to the point -- hundreds of smaller papers across the country.

Yet Sagan's reputation among his scientific peers never matched his fame. The ambivalence with which he was viewed by his professional colleagues forces us to scrutinize how we as scientists value efforts to communicate science to a non-scientific audience.

Science and the public

Although scientific organizations and professional societies increasingly recognize and proclaim the importance of public outreach and education, "popularizing" science carries with it a decidedly negative connotation for many scientists. What Sagan achieved over his lifetime was precisely what that term conveys -- he made science popular, and for that we should all be profoundly grateful.

Americans generally hold science and scientists in high regard. Interest in science is also quite high. A recent study commissioned by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 14 industrial countries, shows the United States with the highest level of public interest in science -- nearly 60 percent. That's the good news. The study, which was reported in the Nov. 15, 1996, issue of Science, also found that public knowledge of science in the United States ranks among the lowest. Just over 20 percent of American adults are rated as "moderately well informed" about science -- significantly fewer than the number interested in the subject.

This gap between interest and understanding is the challenge ahead. In his last book, a polemic against pseudoscience entitled The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan warns: "We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster."

In the long term, scientists' primary responsibility as educators is to narrow that gap by increasing the scientific literacy of future generations. In the interim, however, we must seek to fill the gap by explaining our activities to the public in clearly understandable terms.

If we do not, the gap will increasingly be filled by pseudoscientific claimants, much to the detriment of society. In the geosciences, we need only recall Iben Browning's 1990 "prediction" of a major earthquake in the vicinity of New Madrid, Mo., and the millions of dollars squandered in public preparation for this non-event, or the continuing arguments over "creation science" and how we teach the history of our species and planet.

Reaching the public

The threat of declining federal budgets has already forced the scientific community to re-evaluate the need for communication with the public. Last year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) made much of Director Neal Lane's presentation to the Arlington (Va.) Rotary Club. Although Lane's talk may well have been a first for NSF's leadership, Sagan had been in the Rotarians' living rooms long before, either via their television sets or through one of his best-selling books or his articles in Parade magazine and other popular periodicals.

Although Parade may be a stretch, scientists can do a great deal of good by getting articles published in local newspapers about their work. These articles have an impact not only on public perception but also on Congress -- elected officials are acutely aware of what the hometown press covers.

The Geological Society of America's Committee on Geology and Public Policy recently produced a useful document on generating media coverage, which is available free on request. The American Geophysical Union's public affairs program conducts seminars at each of its meetings on dealing with the media.

Local media is one way for scientists to reach out to the public. Other ways are through books and articles in popular magazines, field trips for amateur groups, and participation in society outreach activities.

A different form of outreach is public service, which can range from sitting on advisory panels to testifying before federal, state, and local governmental bodies. And almost all of us have one, if not several, neighbors whose ears can be bent.

Reexamining our values

Many of these activities take enough time that altruism as a motive may well fall short, particularly for younger scientists trying to establish themselves. They cannot afford to abandon self-interest when faced with a system that either actively or passively penalizes such activities. We have not valued communication with non-scientists where it matters most -- in hiring, in tenure decisions, in promotions.

There is considerable discussion over whether scientists in universities get appropriate credit for undergraduate teaching (certainly important for the long-term narrowing of the knowledge gap), but what about credit for training K-12 teachers or bringing high-school students into their labs? Are scientists rewarded for becoming involved in policy issues, applying their expertise to real-world problems?

The irony is that such activities are entirely within the self-interest of the scientific community. Focusing solely on the research at hand may well produce more grant proposals in the short-term. But if Congress is cutting funds for grants, then the effort is wasted.

Public support, public interest

The most visible phase of the federal budget process begins this month and will continue at least until the start of the fiscal year in October. Much of the hard work of budget cutting was postponed until after the election, and the push to find politically acceptable cuts will be intense.

As the scientific community prepares to make its case to a skeptical Congress, it will rely in part on the good will and interest developed over the years. In making our case, we must demonstrate the value of scientific research to the public but we must also -- as Sagan did -- communicate the wonder that makes real science far more incredible than the pseudoscience that seeks to replace it.

This process does not begin in Washington but with scientists in universities, federal agencies, and the private sector. If we remain isolated as a community, the gap between public interest and knowledge may well close on its own -- with the public's interest in science dwindling to the same level as its knowledge.

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute

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