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SciFest focuses on future of science in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 20, 2008 - Most people, including policy makers, spend very few waking moments thinking about science -- much to the consternation of many scientists. A very small number of people are involved in science policy. And the science "establishment" needs to rethink how to connect science and the public, according to Richard Borchelt, communications director for the Genetics and Public Policy Center of the Berman Bioethics Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Borchelt is a former science adviser to the Clinton administration. He compared his years in the west wing of Clinton's White House to the television show, "West Wing." Not once in over 90 episodes was a science adviser shown walking through the halls with President Bartlett, Josh Lyman or C.J. Cregg. That absence was a snapshot of reality. Science may be crucial to the future of the country, but does not necessarily have public support, trust, or even attention.

Borchelt's talk was part of the closing discussion at SciFest '08, a five-day celebration of science and technology held at the St. Louis Science Center earlier this month. Programming ranged from the science of chocolate to the problems of stem cell research. Attendance exceeded expectations by thousands. The time had come to ask how to build upon the SciFest experience and how to increase the visibility of St. Louis' scientific assets.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Science in St. Louis Region

The afternoon began with a panel discussion moderated by Dr. William Peck, director, Center for Health Policy at Washington University and chairman, Innovate St. Louis. The 13 panelists represented universities, industry, incubators for entrepreneurs, and civic organizations with scientific interests.

The panel agreed on the region's major strengths. "St. Louis has probably the greatest aggregation of plant scientists anywhere in the country," said Peter Raven, Ph.D. president of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Those in the field recognize the quality of plant science here, and hiring is easy. St. Louis may well be the national leader in plant science

Furthermore, St. Louis is in the upper tier of medicine and health care, with two outstanding medical schools, and companies such as Pfizer and Sigma. Peck pointed out that Washington University is always in or near the top five recipients of funding from the National Institute of Health. James Thompson, Dean of Engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia, pointed out that Missouri ranks fifth in the country in contracts with the Department of Defense. St. Louis's three universities, St. Louis University, Washington University, and the University of Missouri, St. Louis, along with a large community college system, graduate a large educated labor pool. It has two business incubators, with about $500 million in venture capital under active management, according to Marcia Mellitz, CEO of the Center for Emerging Technologies.

Yet, Raven pointed out, companies are not clamoring to come here. The panelists suggested various reasons. Primary among them is lack of state funding for new enterprise and higher education. Also, the area lags in the participation of minorities in science and technology, according to Tom George, Ph.D., chancellor of the University of Missouri-St Louis.

Public Perception is Not Always Positive

Talk turned from St. Louis to the relationship of science to the general public.

As a biochemist, Frank Burnet, University of the West of England, and organizer of the Cheltenham Science Festival, gets discouraged when acquaintances, upon learning his profession, say "I need to go get a new drink." The stereotype of the scientist as a bloke with a lab coat, wild hair, and wild eyes -- it's pretty universal, Burnet claimed. And breaking down that stereotype is important when it comes to science and public relations. In a UK survey, 75 percent of people surveyed said they were amazed by science, but 70 percent also said they distrusted scientists.

Events such as SciFest are important, he feels, because it creates contexts where scientists can meet people.

Scientists Need to Change Some Ways of Thinking About Science

Rich Borchelt elaborated on public interest in science:

Scientific literacy needs to move from a "just in case" model to "just in time." Students are asked to memorize formulas just in case they will need them, but the vast amounts of information instantly available on the internet make that kind of rote learning out of date.

We should distinguish between awareness, understanding, and support for science. Awareness is very high, he claimed. The myth, however, is that understanding leads to support. In his focus groups, he finds that the more people know about science, the more they focus on the problems. He often hears, "I don't want to know what's in my genome. I'm scared of what's in my genome."

It is the responsibility of science to speak truth to power. Science should be done not to make this a better country, but to make it a better world, according to Borchelt. He pointed out that the public is looking for accountability, accessibility and transparency from science. The public doesn't trust corporations having access to personal scientific data.

In its efforts to gain public support, science needs to moderate the hype. Investigators need to talk not only about the promise of the research, but the downsides as well. Cheerleading can do harm, as when a drug is trumpeted as the next great treatment for a serious disease, when actually it has only been shown to work in mice.

Events Like Scifest Can Help Increase Public Support for Science

The afternoon concluded with a panel discussion of "Next Steps." Suggestions ranged from talking to your children about science to beginning to think of science as contributing to the welfare of the world.

Underlying all the afternoon's discussions, and mentioned frequently, was the feeling that SciFest represents a positive step in improving public perception of science.

SciFests will be held at the Science Center for at least two more years. 

Jo Seltzer is a freelance writer with more than thirty years on the research faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine and seven years teaching tech writing at WU's engineering school.

Jo Seltzer

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