AAAS CEO Rush Holt Discusses the State of U.S. Science and Communicating Science to Policymakers

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Publication date: 
6 October 2015

On September 29, Rush Holt, the Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and former U.S. Representative, spoke during an interview about the state of science in the U.S., how to communicate science to the public and policymakers, and how scientists and others can engage effectively with policymakers to be better advocates for science. Holt’s main theme, to which he returned repeatedly, was the need to empower the public and policymakers with the idea that they are capable of understanding and evaluating scientific evidence on their own.

Holt, who is known for his sixteen year tenure as the U.S. Representative for New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District, is a Ph.D. physicist who served for eleven years as assistant director of the Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and as head of the Nuclear and Scientific Division of the Office of Strategic Forces at the Department of State. Early in his career, Holt served for a year as an American Physical Society Congressional Policy Fellow on Capitol Hill.

An ad hoc group of organizations called the Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy (ESEP) Coalition hosted Holt’s interview by webinar. ESEP’s stated goal is “to empower scientists and engineers to effectively engage in the policymaking process at all levels of government.”  Two AIP Member Societies, the American Physical Society and American Meteorological Society, are among the founding members of ESEP.

An approximate transcript of Holt’s interview follows:

What is your own view of the state of science in America?

"Research coming out of the U.S. is still excellent, probably the best in the world.  Science education is good, and excellent for some people, particularly those moving toward professional science.  Overall, in the history of the U.S., there has been a good appreciation of science, what it’s about, of evidence and the evaluation of evidence, and the communication of evidence so others can make up their own minds. That’s been well appreciated in the U.S., as well as the benefits of science.  There’s historically been an understanding that there’s not just applications of science – whether smartphones, plows, or sewing machines – but that there’s also an intellectual improvement in that in doing science there’s sharper and smarter thinking.  That’s something that’s been appreciated in most of history until recently. 

“Science is now eroding in this country. The idea of practical thinking and of evidence-based thinking is less prevalent. There are all these indications that reverence for evidence and practical thinking is eroding.  People don’t feel like they are capable of evaluating the evidence about vaccinations or climate change. They feel like they are not a scientist and therefore they go with their ideology. You add to this the effect on public policy. We are seeing erosion for the support of sciences in several senses of the word.

What can advocates of science do to reverse this erosion?

An awful number of the seminars about communicating science are about how to make your work intelligible to an ordinary person, how to simplify terminology to make it understandable to a normal person, or highlighting the wow factor of some science, like landing on a comet or manipulating atoms one at a time. What’s missing there is helping people understand that they too can think like a scientist, that they too can practice these techniques of evidentiary thinking, of evidence-based thinking.

“I think rather than trying to simplify or dress up your research and explain it to others, we need to put more attention at getting to the essence of science that is the part of what every scientist does. That is asking questions in a way that is done on the basis of evidence, seeking empirical answers to questions, and open communication and verification of your findings. Then you have science. Anyone can do this, even a third grader. Actually third graders do this on their own until we tell them to do otherwise. What’s the essence here is understanding, evaluating, and communicating evidence.

When you were in Congress, what effective methods did you see scientists use in engaging policymaking on Capitol Hill?

Scientists, whether they are coming from pharmaceutical companies or NASA-sponsored labs, ought to tell their stores. This is how humans think: through main characters or protagonists with stories who face obstacles and need to overcome those obstacles to reach their goals.  Facts alone do not convince people.  Stories do.  You would hope that your story does not contradict your facts or figures, but it’s the story that counts. 

“Also, try to get them to talk about the essence of what they do in a way that would help the listener think ‘I could do that. I can think like that too.’ Scientists too often try to convince that what they’re doing is so sophisticated that it can’t be done at home. We should be doing the opposite. We need to tell people that you too can think intelligibly about evidence. Members of Congress are not loathe to talk about things about which they are not expert. But often when it comes to science, they say ‘I can’t do science. We better leave that to the scientist.’ You begin to see the effect of that. They abdicate their responsibility in dealing with many of the scientific aspects of these policy questions.

How can we teach science more effectively, to instill this kind of STEM evidence-based thinking at all levels?

Throughout education, our system should be directed toward developing a reverence for evidence. In any field, whether or physical or earth or life sciences. I believe in the pre-college years we should teach every science to every student every year. There are books like Science For All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy that have proposed this. We can teach age appropriate science for every age group. Every year you can be learning about energy and life systems as well as energy and physical systems, but increase it in level of sophistication in each year. What you really want to be teaching throughout all of this is that science is about asking questions that you can answer empirically using evidence and that anyone can do it.

Science is often viewed as having too much uncertainty. How do we address uncertainty in science policy?

Science is often taught as a checklist of what we know. Science would be more interesting if it were taught about what we don’t know. This would be fun and it would be closer to what science is actually about. In approaching questions we know and don’t know, scientists come to learn the provisional nature of what we know, that it is always subject to revision based on further experimentation.  They learn about generalizability. They also learn that there’s noise or uncertainty in any measurement. It’s the opposite of what most people think about science.  Most think science is as precise as you can get. It some ways it is. Scientists are much more comfortable with uncertainty than politicians or the general public, because they get that’s what they’re trying to understand.

What kind of science do policymakers need to know about when doing their job?

In Congress, those things that are explicitly science are handled pretty well.  Legislation, policy discussion about science - for example on NASA’s budget - are handled pretty well. But there’s also cases in which science is embedded in other issues, and politicians are not even aware of the scientific content that it is embedded in, or they choose to ignore it.  It’s hard to find any issue that doesn’t have scientific elements embedded in it.

How should we train scientists to explain their work to policymakers? What do policymakers need from scientists?

It’s asking too much to try to teach politicians the terminology and details and methodology of science. What we need to teach them is that they too can evaluate evidence. Part of that is knowing how to demand and ask those who know the techniques for evaluating evidence how they do it. This isn’t about just turning to the scientists and taking their word for it. Everyone making decisions should be evaluating evidence.  We shouldn’t just be turning that over to the scientists. Substituting scientists’ judgement for the people’s judgment is not just not scientific, it’s not smart.

How can we encourage academic institutions or scientific societies to do an effective job of representing science?

The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows is a great way to do it. There are several dozen professional societies that sponsor these fellows, and a number of agencies also sponsor them for a year. [AIP sponsors a State Department Science Fellowship and co-sponsors a Congressional Science Fellowship with the Acoustical Society of America. A number of AIP Member Societies also sponsor their own congressional science fellowships, including the American Meteorological Society Congressional Science Fellowship, the American Physical Society Congressional Science Fellowship, the Optical Society Congressional Science Fellowship, and American Astronomical Society John Bahcall Public Policy Fellowship.] The fellows are trained engineers and scientists who will spend a year working in agencies and all branches of government. Some go on to do policy professionally, and others go back to their professions and bring back an understanding of policy.

“There are some key questions scientific societies can help to answer:  How does science constrain the possible answers to problems? How does science guide the possible policies? Some societies are more like trade associations, looking after the interests of their members. Some are academic, in the narrow sense of the word and want to be left alone to do their research. Every society owes it to society at large to look for all the policy issues on which they can shed light. Every society has a civic responsibility to communicate with the public – not just about the wow factor, and the spinoffs, and the fruits of research – but even more importantly to help the public and chosen policymakers to understand how evidence will help them choose the best future - the optimal future - and in the process improve the quality of life, not just through technological spinoffs but also through clearer thinking about the future.

What is the role social media, and media in general, in this process?

You saw me in Congress treating constituent comments and requests – no matter how they came in – the same.  We tried to be attuned to social media too, and obviously this is growing.  Even in the last nine months since I’ve been out of office, social media has grown in both dimension and technique. As a science community, we want to encourage open social communication in any way we can. With social media, it’s hard to know the quality of information. We don’t know if a Wikipedia can maintain the same standards of accuracy and verification as Encyclopedia Britannica. Still, social media is something we want to grow.  It has a spontaneity and instant effect that is very desirable. We want to combine that with some kind of verification so we can get the best of the reliability.

What about your view of the media? Do they understand science the way they should?

The short answer is no. What I’ve already said for policymakers so too applies for journalists. You don’t have to be a trained scientist to be able to think like a scientist, to use evidence-based thinking, and to demand that anytime somebody gives you a fact or conclusion, you ask them what’s the evidence for that. Journalists who are not trained in science can’t do that, or they don’t very often. 

“Economics is the most written about science or at least the most written about regarding decisions made in Washington.  But how often does a journalist ask a question about your evidence for your position on the effect of an economic action like raising interest rates or quantitative easing by the Fed?  Journalists could demand that those interviewed point to evidence and communicate it in a way that allows the readers to evaluate its validity.

Who has communicated well about science?

I am of a generation that admired Carl Sagan.  Carl Sagan’s last book called A Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark said that if you don’t use science to understand how the world works, then you just end up with a world of demons that are acting independently and capriciously, and that can be a scary world. The ones I admire the most are not just simplifying the terminology and the techniques but also are telling stories about how evidence is collected, the techniques, so the viewer can understand how science leads us to know something. Science is the shrewdest maneuver for learning about how the world works. The key elements are: Evidence-based. Open communication.  Letting people check your work.”

How would you respond to the idea that if only politicians had more scientific information they would make science-based decisions better?

That’s a complicated question that I don’t have time to fully answer, but I served in the U.S. House. The Members there are representative of the public at large -- their hopes, fear, apprehensions and misapprehensions, including those about science. We need to focus on educating the public, because that’s where they get their instructions and their ideas, and in some cases their direction, from.  Some of them also get their directions from special interests.  With the special interests, if we find no amount of fact finding is getting us to where we need to get, we have to fall back on the Constitution and public power.