In December, Andy Hoffman led a panel at Amerst’s Institute for Social Science Research, promising to be “provocative in order to push scientists outside of their comfort zones, and scientific institutions into faster change.” Hoffman, who earned his BA in chemical engineering from UMass Amherst and his PhD in management/civil & environmental engineering from MIT, quickly delivered on that promise, with a review of studies on the “abysmal state” of public perceptions of science.
Hoffman affirmed that “scientists have an obligation to make their work understandable, relevant, and credible. Too often, he said, scientists think it their job to discover and publish for their peers, often only reaching a handful of readers, or none at all. If the only value of the $400k that goes into publishing in an A-level article in management is to put a line on our resume and establish our place in the pecking order, that’s not good enough.”
This seminar, co-sponsored by the Institute for Social Science Research, the Public Engagement Project, the Social Science and Environment Network, and the Isenberg School of Management, raised important questions for scientists seeking to redress the Academy’s crisis of legitimacy. Should all scientists be engaging, and with what training and support? What does legitimate scientific engagement look like, and are there forums scientists should not use? How do you phase it into your career or institution’s profile and do it carefully, recognizing your vulnerability? What more can universities and disciplines do to shift the incentives and remove obstacles to public engagement?
The genesis of much of this movement can be attributed to Dr. Jane Lubchenco in her 1997 AAAS Presidential Address, and subsequent work as eminent public scholar and engaged scientist. Her call for a New Social Contract for Science (originally printed in Science in 1998, and usefully updated in remarks at the University of Michigan in 2015) called on scientists to see informing publics beyond the academic disciplines as a central purpose of science.
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52% of registered Republican voters see universities as a negative influence on society. “The fact that we don’t know this,” he said, “is an indicator of how badly we have lost touch.”
“Andy explained that scientists can no longer justify or afford to remain disconnected in this way.” The discussion then turned to “important questions and lessons to help scientists engage the public as experts with communication that is authentic, accessible, and trusted.”