FAS Senate town hall tackles ‘Scientific Knowledge in the Public Sphere'

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate hosted a panel examining the role of science in education, research, and public policy.
Photo of five faculty panelists

At the FAS Senate town hall (from left) Valerie Horsley, Sarah Demers, Julie Zimmerman, Gary Brudvit, and Paul Turner. (Photo by Michael Helfenbein)

For its first town hall on “The American University in the Twenty-First Century,” the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate examined the role of science in education, research, and public policy.

The Oct. 29 event featured a panel of Yale faculty and covered a range of topics, from how science is funded and communicated to its place in policy debates. Geology and geophysics professor David Bercovici moderated the discussion, which was titled “Scientific Knowledge in the Public Sphere.”

Evolutionary biologist Paul Turner, acting FAS dean of science, said a lack of research funding for basic science has led to a “stifling of ambitions” among young scientists, who are “very much aware” of funding trends. He noted that his own approach to funding is to seek a broad range of funding sources, including private foundations and venture capital.

Turner said that as a scientist, he understands many of his discoveries will be improved upon, eclipsed, or even discarded, as scientific knowledge and technology evolves. Yet that isn’t compatible with the tone of current public and political discourse, which stresses absolute certainty, he noted, saying, “Clearly, there is this emphasis on right versus wrong, and winner versus loser.”

Chemistry chair Gary Brudvig echoed that point. He said scientific breakthroughs are the result of incremental work and collaboration, rather than sudden advances — yet funding is increasingly being tied to short-term goals. He also lamented the harm being done to the “STEM pipeline” of young scientists due to insufficient funding for education and training.

Brudvig added that the increased politicization of science — particularly climate science — has been disconcerting. “We can’t be treating science as a political issue,” he said.

Julie Zimmerman, professor of green engineering at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said there is more pressure on scientists today to be better communicators. However, communications is not one of the typical metrics for scientists trying to achieve career goals such as tenure.

Scientists in environmental research often find themselves trying to decide whether to become involved in public policy or advocacy roles, and to what degree, Zimmerman said. “It’s been a long struggle in our field, about where that line is,” she said.

Particle physicist Sarah Demers said she makes a point of visiting Congressional offices and talking with policy makers about the value of basic science. She noted that at times, media and research narratives about health and science topics are contradictory or frustrating: “We scientists have gone from, ‘Germs are bad,’ to ‘Really, babies should eat a little bit of dirt,’” she said.

Demers urged scientists to embrace their dual role as researchers and communicators. That would include publishing open-access publications and being mindful of the fact that much research is paid for by taxpayer dollars, she said. “We need to think as a community about supporting a strong, national science program.”

One way to secure better funding and promote the value of science is to be stronger advocates, said Valerie Horsley, associate professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology. Earlier this year, Horsley helped organize a March for Science in New Haven; she said scientists must deliver a strong, consistent message that scientific knowledge is essential to society.

We, as individuals, have to realize we’re citizens of a community,” she said. “We can’t just hide in the gothic, lovely buildings of Yale. We can’t stay silent.”

In response to questions from the audience, the panelists also touched on the need to better promote science success stories at Yale, the value of showing how science research affects peoples’ daily lives, and the importance of advocating for science education at all levels.

Demers said scientists are also likely to find allies in the humanities as they advocate for science education and research. “Let’s not try to solve this problem on our own, as scientists,” she said.

The American University in the Twenty-First Century” is a yearlong series of town hall events on current challenges in higher education, sponsored by the FAS Senate in conjunction with the Dean of Yale College, the Graduate School, and the FAS Dean.

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Jim Shelton: james.shelton@yale.edu, 203-361-8332