Science needs ace communicators and politicians

In February, Alice Huang became president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The renowned virologist began her career at Harvard in 1971, eventually becoming director of the laboratories of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital Boston. After a stint at New York University, she moved to the California Institute of Technology in 1997 when her husband, Nobel laureate David Baltimore, became its president. She is now a senior faculty associate in biology at Caltech. In March, Huang spoke with senior editor Janet Raloff about the need to make science accessible to the public and policy makers.

ALICE S. HUANG “We’d like absolute answers, but we realize that sometimes decisions must be made with partial data or some uncertainties.” Courtesy of A. Huang

You’ve said researchers need to be willing to popularize science. Like Carl Sagan did?
Absolutely. In fact, in the early 1980s, [physicist] Leon Lederman and I tried hard to get a prime time TV drama that would focus on science — to show the process of science, its ability to solve problems and that scientists are, well, human. It never got off the ground, but I’m glad to see that several shows with scientists or mathematicians in them have since become quite popular.

Haven’t scientists taken flak for popularizing science?
Sometimes. There’s a certain elitism among scientists who feel that a popularizer is not as good a scientist as he or she could be. But that’s just snobbishness.
We are at a time when many decisions involving science will have to be made by lawmakers — or even voters at the ballot box. So it’s important for people to understand the issues. And that’s where we, as scientists, can help.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much consideration given to training scientists to communicate, except with other scientists. And much of that is in jargon, which can make what we say hard even for scientists in other fields to understand.

We held a National Science Foundation–supported program one summer where we invited some of the best communicators from various fields of science. And what was amazing is that physicists had a totally different concept than biologists of what a cell was. We were using the same words but in ways that had very different meanings. So imagine how nonscientists must get confused when we throw these terms out and expect that people will know what we mean.

But probably the most difficult concept to get across to nonscientists is that we look at data and then use probabilities to judge those data. The public wants an absolute black-and-white answer. We may look at something that is 80 percent likely as being good enough to base decisions on.

We’d like absolute answers, but we realize that sometimes decisions must be made with partial data or some uncertainties. And … as we collect more data, what we thought of as truth might change.

If we can be patient and explain this to nonscientists — how we are seeking truth with the best tools available — they are less likely to be negative or skeptical of our conclusions.

You’ve said scientists should step up to the plate and become “politically active.” Do you mean lobbying?
It could mean going up to Capitol Hill and engaging congressional staffers and lawmakers — explaining certain needs that scientists have as well as the international competitiveness of certain aspects of science and their relevance to national policy. And here I’m thinking of some of the bigger projects, such as the large telescopes, the physics community’s colliders and the space station.

Sometimes you’ll want to … lobby. At other times, it’s important … to give carefully considered, unbiased opinions and options that policy makers can use in their decision making. We just need to make it clear which role we are playing.

I also wish more scientists would become politicians. Especially now, because there seems to be a big welcome mat in this administration.

I’ve frequently been struck by how in many developing countries the leadership contains the intellectual elite: physicists, economists and medical scientists.

In my own family, I had an uncle, K.T. Li, who was a physicist studying under Ernest Rutherford at Cambridge in England during the late ’30s, when Japan and China were at war. He left [the] lab to go to Germany to study radar because he realized that was something China would one day need to defend itself.

But later, he … became minister of economic affairs. In doing this, he gave up a very promising career in science, but helped Taiwan’s national economy get on its feet and become an important economic force in the Far East.

Personally, I support every Ph.D. scientist who is running for office — Democrats and Republicans — because I believe that, as in the sciences, advances in our social structure come from a diversity of inputs and ideas.