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Lane of NSF urges researchers to educate public about science

Dr. Neal F. Lane, the director of the National Science Foundation and former professor of physics at Rice University, says faculty and researchers need to "speak up, speak out and speak English" about science, technology and the scientific process.

The NSF has begun to change its traditional low public profile--the old attitude that "trumpeting our successes was somehow unseemly" may have "inadvertently carried just a whiff of elitism," he said.

"We are not doing a service to the research community or the public if we do not help make the case about why science and technology matter in people's lives," Dr. Lane told the March 24 meeting of the public affairs officers of the American Association of Universities.

"Given today's budgetary climate, neither the federal R&D agencies nor the research community can afford to appear isolated from the taxpayer who pays the bills."

Dr. Lane said he is very troubled by the lack of public understanding about science. "At NSF, our surveys continue to show that more than two-thirds of the public believes that science is a net good. And over 40 percent say they're strongly interested in science and technology.

"Nevertheless, only one in 10 surveyed believes that he or she is well informed about science and technology, and only one in four has some knowledge of science. Two-thirds have no understanding of the scientific process--they don't know what research means.

"These survey results may suggest more about the research community than they do about the public," he said. "Traditional scientific training does not prepare its graduates very well to assume a role as an activist in society, to spread the word about science--to talk in plain English."

Dr. Lane said, "Over my last couple of years at NSF, I've come to believe that it's time for the science and technology enterprise to embrace reaching out to the public. In more personal terms, researchers need to engage in genuine public dialogues with their local communities, in the mold of what I have come to call the `civic scientist.'

"My own experience over many years as an academic physicist and a university administrator demonstrates the isolation that many scientists experience. Before I became NSF director, I was accustomed to speaking to scientists around the world, and to students, but only rarely to groups outside the research community.

"Now I've come to see how vital it is to reach beyond the converted, even to the local Rotary Club, the local radio talk show, community forums of various kinds. I can well understand how such outreach can seem rather daunting for a scientist, but my own experience attests to the fact that it does become easier with practice," Dr. Lane said.

"I might even venture to say that it is time that such outreach be numbered among the professional responsibilities of scientists, and that training for it become an integral part of a scientific education."

Dr. Lane paid tribute to the late Carl Sagan, "an astronomer renowned not just for ground-breaking work in planetary science, but for his one-man campaign to increase the public understanding of science."

He closed by saying, "Probably the most important message that I would hope you might take back to your institutions is that the climate for science has changed forever. While it is necessary to increase public understanding of science and technology, it is equally important for scientists to deepen their understanding of the public. This two-way communication has the promise to benefit us all. You as public-affairs specialists can help make this happen."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 3, 1997.

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