The 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting: Some Highlights for Science Editors

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held its annual meeting, titled “Bridging Science and Society”, on 18–22 February 2010 in San Diego, California. We present here a sampling of symposia of potential interest. Information about other sessions can be found at www.aaas.org/meetings.

Ensuring the Transparency and Integrity of Scientific Research

Recent events have shaken the public’s trust in science, said Ralph Cicerone, president of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and organizer of the session The goal of this late-breaking session, Cicerone said, was to “improve the practice of science and the personal conduct of scientists”.

Government and mass-media attention to aspects of climate-change research has been prompting concern in the scientific community and the public, Cicerone said, citing recent reports that illustrate problems with data integrity and noting an episode involving theft and disclosure of climate scientists’ e-mail exchanges. In response, he suggested, science organizations should work to increase accessibility of data, ensure research integrity, and address public concerns about conflicts of interest.

Phillip A Sharp, of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that the changing research environment—for example, increased use of digital data and greater attention to research results from government policy makers— calls for new standards for data “stewardship”. All data—from those in laboratory notebooks to large consortium data sets— should be documented, referenced, and indexed, he said.

Sharp recommended that professional societies, journals, scientists, sponsors, and institutions work together to develop universal standards for data integrity, accessibility, and stewardship. Professional standards issued by those groups, he said, should include management plans and guidelines on quality and preservation of digital data, on transparency and scrutiny in peer review, on institutionally required training on data integrity, and on financial support from sponsors and universities.

Gerald R North, of Texas A&M University, who chaired the committee that prepared the National Academies Press publication Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years, spoke about the aforementioned recent controversy in climate research in which e-mails obtained without authorization indicated possible misconduct on the part of some climate researchers. He expressed concerns about how much information to provide to nonscientists and whether and how to defend against attacks from bloggers, politicians, and the mass media. Echoing some of Sharp’s comments, North said that uniformity of data archiving among disciplines may help lessen public criticism.

North encouraged journals that do not yet do so to allow the publication of online supplemental materials, and he proposed that national centers function as repositories for raw data. Most important, “authors, editors, and referees need to step up,” he said, and aggressively determine whether research appears to be reproducible before allowing results to be published.

Next, Sheila Jasanoff, of Harvard University, spoke about factors that influence society’s “crisis of confidence” in science. She explained that “science and democracy share important values,” including humility, skepticism, and openness. For scientists, however, she said that humility is often marred by arrogance, skepticism and peer review are hindered by hyperspecialization, and openness is frustrated by a lack of communication from some institutions.

The session concluded with an open discussion in which the audience raised such issues as whether journals should make public the comments from referees, whether “skeptics gain the upper hand” when scientists balk at turning over raw data, and whether international differences in scientific ethics will hamper efforts to create universal standards.

One exchange concerned whether editors listen to referees sufficiently. The issue was raised in the context of a recently retracted Lancet article, which discussion participants said was published despite referee concerns.

Also during the interactive discussion, Francisco J Ayala, a former AAAS president, mentioned that the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America is abolishing the practice of direct submission of others’ work by members; this move is consistent with the symposium’s recommendations for increased stringency of peer review.

Facing the Uncertain Future of International Science Journalism

This session sought to demonstrate that although science journalism in the United States and some of Europe might be struggling, there is still reason for optimism, especially because the profession is stable in other parts of the globe. Moderator Cristine Russell, of Harvard University, set up the contrast by noting several differences between the developed world and the developing world. For example, she said, some countries have obesity problems and others starvation problems.

Mariette DiChristina, editor-in-chief of Scientific American, called the future of science communication a good news–bad news story. “Many of the things we’re concerned about today are science concerns,” she said. Citing primarily a survey from The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (people-press.org/report/528/), she explained that although people are interested in science and think of scientists as “heroes”, they “haven’t necessarily engaged with it”. The popular press reports science as a series of breakthroughs, DiChristina said; she reminded the audience that this is how journal publishing happens, not how science happens. Her solution: science communicators need to share with the public “the things that inspire wonder”.

Pallab Ghosh, of BBC News, also had an optimistic message for science journalists, pointing out that science and science journalism are expanding in much of the developing world. Furthermore, science communicators remain important in developed countries, Ghosh said; he referred to them as “trusted guides” who can scrutinize the science and provide high-quality information to the public.

Nadia El-Awady, of the Arab Science Writers Association, also emphasized the importance of quality in science communication. Referring specifically to the Middle East, she reported that in some countries, there is perceived job stability in science journalism.

Donald Kennedy, a former editor-inchief of Science, explained that at Science there are two “universes coexisting in the same space”—one of reviewers and one of science journalists. “In general, there isn’t collusion,” he said, noting that it is important for journalists to maintain their independence and that American journalism has been shifting from “journalism of verification to journalism of announcement”.

Questions during the discussion period concerned whether there should be a formal peer-review process for journalism and the extent to which science stories in the popular press are entertainment.

Plato’s Progeny: Academies of Science

Plato’s ancient Academy, the first of its kind, was “more of an academic club”, said session co-organizer Jay Labov, but it began a long tradition of science academies. Marking the tradition in 2010 is the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society of London, which is credited with establishing scientific publication and peer review, said Labov, senior adviser for education and communication at NAS.

NAS is in its 147th year and still holds to its charter mission to “investigate, examine . . . and report upon any subject of science or art”, said NAS Executive Officer William Colglazier.

Colglazier said that 80% of NAS reports published today are about public policy. Examples of topics are standards for fuel economy, for Food and Drug Administration approval, and for embryonic stem-cell research. A study on “America’s Climate Choices” is under way. Colglazier also mentioned public-focused NAS projects, such as a science museum and a program to appoint “Hollywood scientists”.

Colglazier encouraged members of science academies to promote credibility by being honest, objective, and “humble, especially when giving advice to society”. He also touched on the changing role of academies from “traditional” to “activist”, emphasizing the need for active advising of communities.

José Antonio de la Peña, a deputy director of the National Council on Science and Technology in Mexico, described science in Latin America. He said that it is increasing in productivity and publication but still lacking in investment, planning, and student achievement.

The role of academies in Latin America, de la Peña said, includes interacting with government, the public, and academic institutions. For example, the Mexican Academy of Sciences, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, focuses mainly on public awareness and children’s programs, he said.

Collaboration between Latin American academies of science is poor, said de la Peña, but joint publications are becoming more common, especially on such topics as sustainable energy and mathematics education. Great plans in such fields abound, said de la Peña, but greater coordination between countries is critical for execution of some ideas. He indicated that coordination will require greater mobility of personnel and greater access to materials.

The final speaker, Session Co-organizer Lynn Elfner, spoke on the overarching goals and needs of the more than 250 academies worldwide. Identifying a common goal of disseminating and archiving knowledge, he cited a need to establish and maintain criteria for research and scholarly activities. He suggested cultivating stronger relationships with academic libraries as a first step.

Elfner also reiterated the need to better communicate with the public. Improvements may be obtained, he suggested, by encouraging local organizations to take more initiative in offering advice to government about such issues as energy, education, and agriculture. He also suggested increasing efforts to promote original research by students, which increases public understanding of the process of science.

Eyes on the Screen: Communicating Science in the New Information Age

Organizer Sharon Dunwoody, of the University of Wisconsin, began by pointing out that science communication, both scholarly and popular, is increasingly dependent on technology.

Communication consultant Dennis Meredith emphasized that scientists should learn a “visual sensibility” to communicate their results. Scientific publishing is changing, he said, and is using a new “visual vernacular”, such as more colored images. Such visuals need not be difficult to make, Meredith said, nor do they need to be “eye candy”. Much valid scientific information can be gleaned from visuals, Meredith said.

Bora Zivkovic, of PLoS One, said that “the communication ecosystem is changing.” The scientific “paper is the center of the ecosystem”, he said, but now PLoS One has, for example, links to blog entries that mention an article on the same Web page as the article itself.

Evan Hadingham, of the PBS series Nova, talked about the “changing landscape of science on television”. He said that he and his colleagues are less able to predict what will be popular with the audience. For example, the 2-hour special What Darwin Never Knew was not expected to have many viewers, especially because it aired on 29 December 2009, when people were busy with the holidays, but it ended up drawing a (relatively) huge audience.

Jane Stevens, of The World Company, a Kansas news company, also called online science communication an “ecosystem” that should be used. It is important, she said, to “create a safe place and a trusted source” of scientific information and to involve the community in small ways. “Build your community and make it invested in what you’re doing,” she said. “Make sure your community has the opportunity to interact with the researchers.” In answer to a question about why scientists should communicate with the public, Stevens said that the public not only funds science but also wants to participate.

Robert Semper, of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, spoke about the Exploratorium’s efforts to help scientists— who are “authentic reporters”—tell their stories more clearly and effectively to engage the public better. “Science actually happens in interesting places,” Semper said, so “remote field trips”, such as to research stations in Antarctica, are a good way both to interest the public and to demonstrate valid science.

Finally, Philip Bourne, of the University of California, San Diego, spoke about integrating new methods into scientific communication. “I don’t want to lose what’s in the journal article,” he said, but he encouraged the use of new media. He said that SciVee, a science-only video site that he helped to create, is a way to use the “authors and the excitement of the work” to share the information. Bourne said he believes that publishers will pay for the service because it brings attention to the article and that authors will be willing to participate because it will help their articles to get more citations. “We rediscovered what TV discovered years ago,” Bourne said.

Science in the Theater

In introducing the session, the moderator, Vince LiCata, of Louisiana State University, explained that a science play can illustrate the facts, the process, and the culture of science. LiCata then outlined points of disagreement among those who create science-based theater productions. How much science needs to be in the story for a production to be a “science play”? How much should the play teach the audience about science? He noted that many consider Proof to be one of the greatest science plays (three of the four characters are mathematicians), but the playwright, David Auburn, thinks of it instead as about human relationships.

Carl Djerassi—novelist, playwright, and contributor to the invention of the oral contraceptive—spoke next about the worldwide production of his plays and showed video clips. Most people focus on what science can do for the theater, Djerassi said, but he cares about “what the theater can do for science”.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson spoke about her “favorite topic in the world”— science-based plays. Her advice for other playwrights applies to anyone communicating science in a narrative format: include “as much science as you can explain and integrate [into your story], not as much science as you know.”

Brian Schwartz, physicist and producer of science plays at City University of New York, spoke about his experiences in communicating science through visual arts, music, dance, and theater. “You get another kind of public,” he said—that is, other than the people who attend science lectures.

Schwartz pointed out that the science section of The New York Times is published once weekly and the arts section eight times (daily, plus an extra section on Fridays), but it is science that gets the majority of grants. Thus, he said, “the conclusion is that arts get the press and science gets the money.” It is therefore important for art and science to work together, Schwartz said. He suggested putting on symposia alongside science plays, featuring historians, scientists, and the play’s actors or directors to put the science into perspective for the public.

The session “Science in the Theater” was held too late for us to cover in person; the summary of it is based on the audio recording of the session. Recordings of most sessions of the 2010 AAAS annual meeting can be ordered at www.aven.com/conf.cfm/cid/1140.

Christina Sumners, Emily White, and George Hale are graduate students in science and technology journalism at Texas A&M University.