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Science needs ace communicators and politicians
In February, Alice Huang became for scientists in other fields to under- national competitiveness of certain
president-elect of the American stand. aspects of science and their relevance
Association for the Advancement We held a National Science Foun- to national policy. And here I’m think-
of Science. The renowned virologist dation–supported program one sum- ing of some of the bigger projects, such
began her career at Harvard in 1971, mer where we invited some of the best as the large telescopes, the physics com-
eventually becoming director of the communicators from various fields of munity’s colliders and the space station.
laboratories of infectious diseases at science. And what was amazing is that Sometimes you’ll want to ... lobby. At
Children’s Hospital Boston. After a stint physicists had a totally dif- other times, it’s impor-
at New York University, she moved to ferent concept than biolo- tant ... to give carefully
the California Institute of Technology in gists of what a cell was. We considered, unbiased
1997 when her husband, Nobel laureate were using the same words opinions and options that
David Baltimore, became its president. but in ways that had very policy makers can use in
She is now a senior faculty associate in different meanings. So their decision making. We
biology at Caltech. In March, Huang imagine how nonscientists just need to make it clear
spoke with senior editor Janet Raloff must get confused when which role we are playing.
about the need to make science accessi- we throw these terms out I also wish more scien-
ble to the public and policy makers. and expect that people will tists would become poli-
know what we mean. We’d like ticians. Especially now,
But probably the most absolute because there seems to be
difficult concept to get a big welcome mat in this
across to nonscientists is administration.
that we look at data and I’ve frequently been
we realize that
then use probabilities sometimes struck by how in many
to judge those data. The decisions developing countries the
public wants an absolute leadership contains the
black-and-white answer. intellectual elite: physi-
We may look at something cists, economists and
that is 80 percent likely as partial data medical scientists.
being good enough to base or some In my own family, I had
decisions on. an uncle, K. T. Li, who was
We’d like absolute a physicist studying under
answers, but we realize that sometimes Ernest Rutherford at Cambridge in Eng-
decisions must be made with partial land during the late ’30s, when Japan
data or some uncertainties. And ... as we and China were at war. He left [the] lab
collect more data, what we thought of as to go to Germany to study radar because
truth might change. he realized that was something China
If we can be patient and explain this would one day need to defend itself.
to nonscientists — how we are seeking But later, he ... became minister of
truth with the best tools available — economic affairs. In doing this, he gave
they are less likely to be negative or up a very promising career in science,
skeptical of our conclusions. but helped Taiwan’s national economy
get on its feet and become an important
economic force in the Far East.
Personally, I support every Ph.D.
scientist who is running for office —
Democrats and Republicans — because
I believe that, as in the sciences,
advances in our social structure come
from a diversity of inputs and ideas. s
COURTESY OF A. HUANG
You’ve said researchers need to be willing to popularize science. Like carl
Absolutely. In fact, in the early 1980s,
[physicist] Leon Lederman and I tried
hard to get a prime time TV drama that
would focus on science — to show the
process of science, its ability to solve
problems and that scientists are, well,
human. It never got off the ground, but
I’m glad to see that several shows with
scientists or mathematicians in them
have since become quite popular.
Haven’t scientists taken flak for popularizing science?
Sometimes. There’s a certain elitism
among scientists who feel that a popularizer is not as good a scientist as he or she
could be. But that’s just snobbishness.
We are at a time when many decisions involving science will have to be
made by lawmakers — or even voters at
the ballot box. So it’s important for people to understand the issues. And that’s
where we, as scientists, can help.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much consideration given to training scientists
to communicate, except with other scientists. And much of that is in jargon,
which can make what we say hard even
You’ve said scientists should step up
to the plate and become “politically
active.” Do you mean lobbying?
It could mean going up to Capitol Hill
and engaging congressional staffers and
lawmakers — explaining certain needs
that scientists have as well as the inter-