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Fall 2006 Vol. 6 No. 3

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Photo by Mark Finkenstaedt FROM THE PRESIDENT

National Academy of Sciences

Celebrating and Rethinking Science Communication

At the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative interdisciplinary conference on “smart prosthetics” held recently at the Beckman Center, Bill Wulf, Harvey Fineberg, and I had the pleasure of awarding the Academies’ Communication Awards. These annual prizes recognize and encourage excellence in communicating science, engineering, and medicine to the general public. Now in their fourth year, and with three prizes of $20,000 each, they have become much sought after awards for science writers, producers and their editors, publishers, and broadcast executives.

On page 20 of this issue of In Focus, you’ll learn more about this year’s prize winners. But here I’d like to reflect on something that struck me as we presented the awards. In each case, the winners focused on subjects of serious importance to society in which science, engineering, and medicine play a critical role. One winner traced human evolution back to its beginnings, explaining how the scientific evidence supports Darwinian theory. Another worked alongside archaeologists to assemble and write about scientific evidence about our earliest human ancestors in the Americas, painting a pre-1492 picture of the continent that is very different from the one we learned in grade school. The third winner and several finalists reported on global climate change and its potential impacts.

But even as we celebrate these excellent communicators, we are also seeing troubling signs that communicating science, engineering, and medicine to the general public is getting harder. With recent downsizings at newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets, there are now fewer full-time science writers and less space or time for serious, in-depth reporting. The Internet does offer new, nontraditional outlets, but it is still unclear whether it can successfully replace newspapers in making science news accessible to a broad general audience.

This means that scientists themselves must do a better job of communicating directly to the public. To do that at the Academies, we have started work on finding new ways of stimulating public interest in science. Specifically we are looking at new avenues to provide evidence-based information on select science-based topics to help educate the informed public, key opinion leaders, and other influential actors in appropriate fields. Our goal will be to communicate the valuable role science plays in the world and to reinforce and enhance positive attitudes toward science and the scientific process. This initiative won’t be easy; some of the challenges we’ll face have their roots in long-standing problems in U.S. science education. But we are making a start, and I welcome your ideas, suggestions, and especially your help.

    National Academy of Sciences

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Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences