Science and society from the former president of the US National Academy of Sciences

Dr Bruce Alberts, recently departed president of the US National Academy of Sciences and Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF, just spoke this morning at a symposium celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Duke University School of Medicine. The overall program is incredible, with four Nobel laureates in three days, plus a number of Lasker Award winners including one of this year's (Linda Grieder).

I'm compelled to put up this quick post on Dr Alberts' talk because of his ambitious plan for improving scientific literacy of the US and the scientific prospects for grad students and postdocs who can't or don't want to follow in the career footsteps of their academic mentors.

First, Alberts says that we must have a US educational system that provides a rigorous scientific education in grades K-8 to prepare all citizens to know something about science so that people in all professions will ultimately have higher scientific literacy than they do today. The NAS published a major report last week, Taking Science to School K-8 detailing their plan which includes:

Conducting investigations
Sharing ideas with peers
Talking and writing in specialized ways
Using mechanical, mathematical and computer-based models

Alberts also takes faculty to task who offer freshman science courses in the biological and physical sciences that universities use as "weeding out courses." He can think of no better way to discourage future businesspeople, politicians, etc. from ever being interested in science again. In fact, Alberts wrote a 2005 editorial in Cell (Cell 123:741-753, 2005) entitled, A Wake Up Call for Science Faculty, that speaks of this need to change how we teach such introductory courses. Alberts cites specifically the so-called Intelligent Design movement as a wake-up call for scientists to take a stand and foster public attitudes about science that are critical for a successful modern society. I haven't yet read the article, but I certainly will this afternoon.

Second, Alberts own transition into public science policy after 20 years of work on DNA replication at Princeton and UCSF has impressed upon him 1) the underestimated importance that scientists place on their role in public policy discourse and 2) the need for scientist career paths in public policy to be viewed as lofty and scholarly as being a tenure-track research professor.

Interacting with policymakers in Washington has convinced Alberts that there is a place for our best and brightest scientists and engineers to become engaged in public policy positions. NAS actually offers fellowships in such areas, including one that can be taken while one is in graduate school so that a fellow can come back and communicate to their compatriots the value of these other important roles for scientists in our society.

During the Q&A period, I asked Alberts how we as PIs and profs might break the stigma that some students might feel for going into alternative science careers (I hate this term because non-bench, non-academic positions now account for the employment of 53% of life science PhDs). Alberts wisdom is to be heeded:

"Professors need to change how we transmit values. If we continue to stress that the only path to success is to be like us [lab-based tenure-track academic researchers], our profession will be dead and we will no longer be able to support science in the US."

I double-checked my notes - Alberts did say unless we changed our expectations of "acceptable" professions for PhDs in the biomedical sciences, our profession will be dead. Food for thought at the next graduate faculty meeting, eh?

Another interesting question came from departing Duke Vice Dean for Medical Affairs and incoming Dean of the University of Louisville College of Medicine, radiation oncology Ed Halperin, MD, who pointed to the 800-pound elephant in the room by asking what is the role of the scientific community in engaging with religious elements that provide a primary source of information for much of the US public.

Alberts' response, which he suggested while at NAS, was that the Academy should engage with forward-thinking religious groups (such as the National Academy of Churches) to work on messages that reconcile a society's need for religious faith that coexist with scientific facts and critical thinking. Alberts noted that many NAS members would prefer to keep distance from religion, but he feels that such discussions are crucial to countering and reversing the anti-science movement in the US, an amazing development given that we are at one of the loftiest periods of science and medicine in civilized history.


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I'm having trouble finding the report Alberts mentions, Taking Science to School K-8, on the NAS website. Has it actually been released yet, or is it pending?

By David Bruggeman (not verified) on 26 Sep 2006 #permalink

Dr Porter, yes I'd love to have a wider discussion of many of Alberts' points by decisionmakers, grad program coordinators, and appt/promotion/tenure committees in academia.

Dr Bruggeman, Alberts was indeed a bit ahead of himself: the prepublication version is available at:

This looks really interesting - I need to take a look at it (especially since I deal alot with graduate students). Thanks.