AAAS 2010 in Review

February 25th, 2010

Each year the AAAS annual meeting brings together scientists, science organizations, and journalists from all over the world. This year the meeting was in San Diego. It was rainy.

A few highlights of my trip were the many discussions of dolphins, doomsday scenarios, and conversations about the changing face of science communication.

It turns out that dolphins might be a great model species for studying type 2 diabetes. However, several other researchers suggest that dolphins should be given non-human person status, which would make that kind of research incredibly difficult. The only reason that people feel all warm and fuzzy about dolphins is that they have an intelligence that we can recognize as similar in some ways to our own. This led to think that human-like intelligence should not be a factor in determining conservation status for animals since intelligence is something we don’t even understand and have a hard time defining. We need to get over ourselves and our over-inflated sense of importance in the universe before tackling these issues.

Mathematicians are finding new ways to use their skills by working with social scientists and urban planners to figure out how to plan for the weird things people do on sidewalks, roads, and in buildings.

It was reinforced that scientists need to remember to keep the public in the loop when planning and executing potentially controversial experiments. Transparency is key to things like hadron colliders and geo-engineering. Keeping people in the dark only leads to greater mistrust and development of more conspiracy theories. So, go talk to the people, you scientists!

And, on that note I’ll end with some points about science communication.

Bloggers for the large part were not allowed press access to AAAS. This is because historically AAAS has only allowed journalists working for accredited organizations to attend. Now, many freelancers, like myself, get around this issue by joining writing organizations like NASW. So, for all you serious science bloggers who didn’t get to attend this year, or who are regularly denied access to professional meetings, until the media landscape changes and new media professionals are considered press in their own right, consider joining an organization that will give you that accredited status. That’s how you get into the parties with the free drinks!

Secondly, I was on a panel about empowering young scientists to help communicate science to the public. Several examples of what an organization called “Sense About Science” in the UK is doing in conjunction with “Voice of Young Science” were brought to light. There are lots of young scientists interested in helping to dispel myths related to science and health. We also discussed various aspects of what is wrong with science in the media these days as well as what is right with it. I expressed my view that new and social media are going to play an increasingly important role in getting science out to the public. Right now, although these online media forms do allow “echo-chambers” to form quite easily, they do allow exceptional access to information and distribution of ideas.

Finally, mass media is still slow to accept independent online media, and even resents its presence (for obvious reasons). However, science journalism can only benefit from people from all areas of the communication sphere working together. Mass media is shrinking, but it will not disappear, and independent media will continue to grow. Together they can make science communication even better.

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