ISEF 2008: Nobel Laureates Panel

i-5967dc2922afde9f1adc0df6992156ff-isef_logo_newsm.gifA cool feature of ISEF is the science star power. This afternoon the judges were treated to a panel full of science luminaries: Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Robert Curl, Rich Roberts, Dudley Herschbach, H. Robert Horvitz, and Leon Lederman. I walked in a few minutes late, so I didn’t catch the introductions, but the moderators voice sounded so familiar. At the end of the session, I discovered the reason…our panel was moderated by Joe Palca, from Science Friday. The session had an open microphone on the floor for questions from the audience. Both the questions and answers were incredibly thought-provoking and covered a wide range of subjects from science education, to the representation of women, to the social responsibility of science research. Below the fold, I’ll share some highlights.

When I walked in the room, the question from the floor was why there weren’t more women on the panel and receiving Nobel prizes. Jocelyn Bell Burnell said that it was silly that they’d had to import a woman from Britain to participate on the panel. Joe Palca said something about inertia, but Jocelyn Bell Burnell replied that there are plenty of smart women in science. (For the record, Burnell’s post-doc advisor was awarded a Nobel Prize in part for work that she did.)

The next question from the floor concerned inspiration for scientific careers and the role of high school science teachers (a very relevant question given the venue). Rich Roberts had the most interesting answer. He attributed his interest in science and math to a headmaster in junior school who gave him lots of math puzzles to solve. And then he said, “Science is just another puzzle, except now you get paid to do it.” Burnell attributed her interest in science to Sputnik and the resulting emphasis on science while she was in high school.

When asked about how much ethics and social responsibility should influence the direction of scientific research, Robert Curl made some comments on institutional review boards and such. He then concluded: “Scientists have a responsibility to point out dangers that the public is not aware of because they don’t have a scientific background.” I thought this point was very pertinent to the issue of anthropogenic climate change.

Having been asked about how to best teach a ninth grade biology course, Leon Lederman argued that “teaching 9th grade biology doesn’t make any sense…it’s an outdated concept from the last century…[biology] should come after physics and after chemistry” so that students understand what a molecule really is before they get bogged down in the Latin terminology of biology. He’s proposed a curriculum called Physics First that would change the sequencing of high school science class. He joked though, that if he were proposing the curriculum now, he would call it “Biology on Top” for PR reasons.

Burnell argued that one of the biggest problems facing science and its perception by the public is the “lack of scientists in politics and the media…amongst the movers and shakers.”

A researcher-turned-teacher asked how the typical science teacher can teach inquiry when they’ve never done research. This provoked a couple of comments from the panel, with Curl suggesting that the biggest problem was in middle school where teachers don’t have much science training and were actually scared of science. “You lose kids to science in middle school even more than high school.” Horvitz argued that the key was being able to say “I don’t know.” Lederman suggested that the problem is “not treating a teacher like a professional…[and that we] have to raise the social status, and the economic status, of teachers…[and] recruit the best teachers.” He argued that this was important not just for the future scientists but for the future voters of this country.

After this rallying voice in support of K-12 teachers, I was a bit bummed when the panel ended on a bum note. The final question was about how to communicate with policy makers who didn’t want to fund science they didn’t understand. Rich Roberts argued that we “need to convince these very-busy scientists that communicating science to the public is worthwhile.” He went so far to suggest that the flat-lining of the NIH budget and the cancellation of some other big science initiatives might be what finally tips the balance and gets scientists talking to policy makers and the public. As an untenured scientist in a publish-or-perish, fund-or-perish world, I think this is a bit unfair. Perhaps those Laureates and distinguished scientists need to take the lead in getting out of the lab and making science understandable and sexy for policy makers and the public.

And on that note, we broke for dinner. The chocolate cake was lovely.


  1. #1 Emily
    May 14, 2008

    First of all, I’m an astrophysics student. Jocelyn Bell Burnell?? *swoon*

    Second, i think it’s fantastic that you’re doing this. I’m completely certain that participating in high school science fairs at the city, regional, and state level is the #1 reason that I’m a Ph.D. student in the sciences today. I often get compliments from people on giving very good talks, and I attribute that directly to science fairs – having to deliver spiels and explanations and answer tough questions for different judges, over and over, every year, for four years, is good practice! Coming from an inner-city high school it was also one of my only chances to interact with other science-loving geeks. Mostly, it made me feel like a Real Scientist – part of a big and enthusiastic community that included the kids AND the judges – scientists and engineers in academia and industry who were asking me questions about MY work. Fantastic. The science itself was quite educational, but the community it opened up was priceless.

    I’m currently trying to get involved with judging science fairs in my new home state (Hawaii – we’ve had a couple kick-ass prize-winners at Intel in recent years!), so it’s so great to hear that you and others like you are involved at Intel!! I’m curious: how do you actually become a judge at Intel? Are you invited, or nominated, or is it as straightforward as volunteering? I’d love to do it someday!

    So I guess I’m saying thanks for contributing to such a great experience for this years’ participants!

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