Biochemist Sudip Parikh leads the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), one of the nation’s oldest institutions, with the mission of advancing science and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people. Recently on Pew’s “After the Fact” podcast—which this season features a series of “Conversations on Science”—Parikh discussed the relationship between scientific research and policymaking, and the challenges ahead in building trust among scientists, the public, and other sectors of society.
Q: The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was formed in 1848 as a place where scientists in the U.S. could gather and discuss their research. How has the organization evolved to continue to foster community and knowledge-sharing with the public?
A: After forming, the organization continued as a speaking club of sorts until the 1900s and then transitioned into a publisher of scientific information. AAAS joined with a publication called Science magazine that was started in collaboration with Thomas Edison. The pairing of those two created an organization that represents multidisciplinary scientists who were interested in working at the intersection of science and society. The magazine didn’t necessarily focus on the newest breakthroughs, rather how those breakthroughs interacted with society and impact policymaking. Nearly two centuries after its foundation, AAAS has expanded into an umbrella organization for many different types of sciences, from anthropology to zoology.
I studied biochemistry and the important molecules that make up the human body, but I found that what I really enjoy is this place where the science meets the rest of the world, because one of the things that I’ve seen over time is that science itself is beautiful. When you can take that beautiful science that inspires awe and then have it become part of the world at large, it makes a larger difference in many more people’s lives.
Q: Science is all around us. Yet we feel the need to point out that there is this connection with science and society when it seems obvious. How can we be better about making this connection for everyone?
A: To some degree, success in scientific research has been our worst enemy. Because success means that you don’t see some of the “sausage getting made.” You don’t see the messiness behind the trial and error or testing phase. You see these wonderful, sleek user interfaces that anyone can use. And it creates a separation between the science itself and the end user of that science. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, we started to complain that children didn’t know where their food came from. It’s that separation that takes science away and diminishes our understanding.
Q: The Pew Research Center says that only 35% of Americans trust scientists a lot, according to a 2019 survey. How does AAAS work to build trust with the larger public?
A: AAAS focuses on building trust and relationships with influencers in our community. For example, we sponsor fellowships for scientists who are working in labs to work in policy settings like Congress or the executive branch to bring their scientific thinking and their scientific experience into that policy realm, because they’re trying to build relationships with people that are making policy. We also have similar programs for journalists who work in newsrooms, such as The Washington Post, as well as local papers and television stations in smaller cities around the country. That’s important, because it’s where people get their information. You must build trust with those influencers.
We also have a program for seminarians, which might not seem connected to science. We have found that establishing relationships helps to create trust with the religious community. That’s critical to have when disagreement occurs as a level of trust already exists to build upon. You have to build that trust beforehand, not when you need it. For instance, when discussing mask-wearing in churches, we have a starting place for dialogue rather than coming in as an outsider and saying, “I’m a scientist, and I'm here to help you.” We should be having those conversations about the intersection of people’s belief systems and their feelings of faith with where science is headed in regard to some of the important questions in science.
Q: How does the scientific method and the process of communicating research affect the public’s trust in scientists?
A: Today, science has become much more removed from daily life due to the necessity of speaking with precision and creation of jargon. In the 17th century, if you wanted to be a scientist, you could be a scientist. Everything that was known could be found in an encyclopedia type of book. It’s not possible today. And jargon takes it completely out of the realm of the lay public. It becomes a special skill set to be able to break out of the audience of scientists and break into the audience of the interested, of the allies of scientists, of the general public. That becomes a skill set all its own that we’re constantly trying to improve on as a larger scientific community.
It’s important to hold the mirror to ourselves as scientists and recognize where we’ve made mistakes. You have to look backwards a little bit and say, “What got us to where we are today?” For instance, if you’re from the Black community, you know about Tuskegee and the ethical violations that took place in that human subjects research. We must recognize some of the areas where science has faced challenges from society and had challenges with itself.
Science is a human endeavor. It’s fallible. We have to make sure that we are building those human interactions and points of trust. This helps convey the person they’re talking to or hearing from is not only a scientist but also a member of their community, with the same wishes and hopes for their children, and that these scientists are looking at research and evidence to try and answer questions that impact their lives and those of their community.
Q: How did your time working as a congressional staffer influence your understanding of how science guides policymaking and the relationship between scientists and legislators?
A. I wanted to see how science fits into the rest of the world because as scientists, we always say, “We need to do more research.” It sounds great to do more science, but there are practical things that we need to do with that money as well. I chose to work on Capitol Hill to see how those decisions were made and why they were made. We have an extraordinary opportunity to rethink how we make investments and ask, “What’s the right argument and the wrong argument for doing science?”
We’ve been fortunate that this country funds the important, basic research conducted by the federal government. That research interfaces with the private sector’s applied research and development in a way that is awe-inspiring.