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At Nobel Conference, scientists and public converse

4:27pm, April 23, 2009
Magazine issue: Vol. 175 #10, May 9, 2009
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Physics professor Charles Niederriter of Gustavus Adolphus College directs the Nobel Conference, an annual forum where scientists and the public discuss a contemporary scientific topic. Held every year at Gustavus Adolphus, in Saint Peter, Minn., this year’s Nobel Conference, October 6–7, will examine the current state of water resources. Staff writer Laura Sanders recently talked with Niederriter about the conference and why scientists need to speak clearly to the public.

How did the Nobel Conference begin?
In the early 1960s … the president of the college approached the Nobel Foundation and asked to use the Nobel name to name a new science building. The Nobel Foundation said, “That’s a great idea, and what you should do when you dedicate the building is to invite as many Nobel laureates as you can.” So the college invited all the living Nobel laureates to attend, and 26 of them showed up. They spent four or five days on campus talking to each other and talking to the public who came for the dedication, and several of them said this was a great opportunity to get together, talk to people they don’t usually talk to and talk about their work with the public.

What does the conference aim to do?
Many of the scientists who have come have said it’s a great opportunity to essentially be a public think tank.…They make their presentation, and in the questions and answers afterward, there’s as much back and forth between the panelists and the other speakers on stage as there is between the speakers and the audience. There’s a lot of “Well I think you’re wrong there,” or “I think you missed this point that I said earlier.” It’s really a wonderful example for the public to see how scientists hash these things out.

Why did you choose this year’s theme of “H20 Uncertain Resource”?
Many, many faculty members have been involved in this and thought about it for years.… Hearing quotes like “The next war will be fought over water,” or going to the Four Corners region, where you shoot somebody for stealing your water, those are the kinds of things you hear from people. And then all of the advances that have been made in water purification and recycling prompted us to start thinking about how we make use of water and how we can continue to reuse water. And one more piece to this … is that pharmaceuticals are things that our water treatment facilities don’t seem to be designed to remove. So it’s really a shotgun approach — a lot of different things.

What other topics are in the works?
We’re working on the 2010 conference, which will be on food and nutrition. It’s going to be an interesting conference with a lot of different things, involving food economics, food security and safety, and taste.… We’ve also talked about something called affective neuroscience. Effectively it’s a religion-neuroscience-chemistry combination, essentially trying to understand where emotions and religion might fit into a scientific view of the brain.

What are some other issues that need to be clearly communicated to the public?
The global warming issue is certainly one where people have tried very hard … to get things out in the open, and for whatever reason it’s been unsuccessful.… Another one I can think of is the issues separating creationism from evolution. That’s been a long, ongoing debate, and one I think where the words that scientists use to describe things may feed the fire of a person who is trying to fight against it by using words like “theories.” And [scientists] don’t always communicate to the public that these are well-tested theories, they’re not just guesses. I think that’s the kind of thing that is a really broad-based problem we have — that the words that scientists use to talk about things have different connotations and meanings than what the general public uses.

Why is it important for scientists to speak clearly to the public about their work?
If scientists can communicate what they are doing, then the normal person on the street really has more trust in what they’re doing, has more of an understanding that what they’re doing is not frivolous and could potentially be useful, or maybe is already useful for them as individuals. If scientists don’t communicate clearly then there are a lot of other people who will communicate for them in a bad sense, people who try to tell the public what scientists are doing with maybe malicious intent, or with ignorance, and get things wrong. So it’s important that scientists do it themselves, and do it right, in such a way that the average person can understand it.

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