Picking a National Champion for Science

22 May 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo: Nicolas Raymond, http://freestock.ca/

On May 8 a lawmaker named Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to create the position of “Science Laureate of the United States.” Regardless of the bill’s chances of passage (more on that later), it raises an interesting question: Who would make a good ambassador for science in the U.S.?

The “Science Laureate” bill (H.R. 1891) would allow the president to appoint up to three science laureates, who would serve renewable one-year or two-year terms. As described in the bill, a science laureate would essentially be a “spokesperson who can embody, demonstrate, and articulate the importance and excitement of scientific research and education” in order to help “improve the current and future state of science” in the U.S.

It’s an interesting idea. Maybe the U.S. does need to single out a few high-profile scientists to serve as the national champions of science. But the challenges are formidable. For example, can such a bill pass?

Legislative Outlook

My source for legislative prognostication. Photo: Ruxandra Moldoveanu, http://www.pandorra.ro

The bill was referred to the House Science Committee on the same day it was introduced. Twelve of its 17 co-sponsors (including Lofgren) sit on the 39-member committee – including the committee’s chair, Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), and ranking member, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.). At first blush, you’d think it stands a good chance of getting out of committee. Not necessarily.

Eleven of those 12 co-sponsors are Democrats and, while Smith is the chair, it does not bode well that he was unable to get any Republican members of the committee to co-sponsor the legislation. The legislative tracking site Govtrack.us gives the bill a 59 percent chance of getting out of committee, which seems fair. But the same site gives the bill a 17 percent chance of becoming law, and I think that may be a little optimistic.

Given the degree of deadlock in the U.S. Congress, and the expected fights looming on immigration, taxes and spending, bills like this one are unlikely to get much attention. While it’s possible H.R. 1891 could be viewed as an apparently non-partisan bill, giving lawmakers the chance to pass something, House GOP lawmakers could also shy away from legislation that has pronounced Democratic backing from the members of the Science Committee (effectively killing it). And, of course, it could easily get lost amidst the more high-profile bills and never make it to the floor.

But if it were to pass, it poses a bit of a predicament – who should the science laureate(s) be?

Who Would You Pick?

The bill states that the president should appoint a science laureate on the basis of his or her ability to “foster and enhance public awareness of and interest in science” and “provide ongoing significant scientific contributions.” That’s not a lot of guidance. So, for what it’s worth, here are some things I’d think about if I was the one who got to pick the science laureates.

Some things to think about. Image: Kristian Stokholm

Consideration 1: Avoid needless controversy. I’m not talking about scientists who are considered controversial because they study politically-charged subjects, such as climate change. I’m talking about scientists who have attracted controversy for issues that have nothing to do with their science. For example, Richard Dawkins (who is English, and not in the running for U.S. science laureate anyway), is well-regarded as an evolutionary biologist. But he’s also drawn fire in recent years for his comments about women (and deservedly so). That sort of controversy would distract from the science, not advance it.

Consideration 2: Diversity. I have nothing against old white guys (I hope to be one myself some day), but any effort to interest the public in science needs to include people that look like the public. And most people are not, after all, old, white and male. Sure, some old white guys will make the list of laureates. But there are extremely talented, passionate scientists who are young and/or female and/or people of color. Let’s make sure they’re well-represented.

Consideration 3: Do they actually perform research? This is a tricky one. I am inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson. He is one of the most effective science communicators of his generation – maybe of any generation. And I know he has a Ph.D., so has presumably done research. But does he still engage in research? I honestly have no idea if he’s still publishing in academic literature. But since part of the laureate’s job is to “provide ongoing significant scientific contributions,” I’d feel obligated to check. (Regardless of the answer, I’m pretty sure he’d be my first choice as a science laureate.)

Consideration 4: Diversity (again). The bill also says the president should seek to include laureates from different scientific disciplines, “including biology, physics, geosciences, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry,” etc. So if I’ve already an astrophysicist as science laureate, I’d want the next science laureate to represent a different field.

Consideration 5: Who would be willing to do it? This may be the most significant challenge. The science laureate position is unpaid, and would almost certainly come under political attack for, well, something. (Climate change? Evolution?) Being a science laureate would be an honor, certainly, but it would also likely be a major pain in the neck.

In short, while getting the science laureate legislation through Congress would be impressive, finding the right people to fill the position might be an even tougher job.

Who would you pick to fill the shoes of a science laureate for the United States?


2 Responses to “Picking a National Champion for Science”

  1. Jimmy Ryals Reply | Permalink

    Tyson was the first person I thought of. Would his role as head of the Hayden Planetarium constitute "providing ongoing scientific contributions"?

  2. Sally Gore Reply | Permalink

    I'm all for have official spokespersons for science, as long as they speak directly to Congress AND Congress agrees to listen to them. Sadly, I don't see that happening. Instead, I see more cuts to government-funded science and can't help but wonder how this move possibly jives with that environment.

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