Union of Concerned Scientists Launches a New Center for Science and Democracy

10/08/2012 08:53 am ET | Updated Dec 07, 2012
  • James A. Shapiro Author, 'Evolution: A View from the 21st Century'; Professor of Microbiology, University of Chicago

In commenting on a recent blog, James Ballard admonished me: "Might I suggest you not wait around in the protective wings of academia..."

Part of my response to James' useful admonition is to serve as a member of the National Advisory Board of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). I happened to be around at the founding of UCS in 1969. As a young, politically active post-doctoral fellow, I participated modestly in the student-driven organization of the anti-Vietnam "Conversion Conference" at MIT. "Conversion" meant turning science away from the military and towards meeting social needs.

Establishing UCS was the faculty response to the challenge posed by student antiwar radicalism. As I can see now, the maturity of the faculty from MIT and many other universities was more foresighted than the less experienced passion of the students. UCS still exists 43 years later as an organization, and it has become a major voice nationally and even internationally for science in the public policy arena.

When politicians and their staffs or journalists need to know what is the truth about the science relevant to a political decision, UCS has become one of (if not the) most credible sources of information. A membership organization composed of scientists and committed lay people, UCS has a professional staff with a national presence at offices in Cambridge, Washington, Chicago and Berkeley.

Philanthropedia, a web site devoted to analyzing and ranking the effectiveness of non-profit organizations, recently identified UCS as the third highest "high impact" nonprofit working nationally in the field of climate change, out of a total of 128 nonprofits that it considered. In the Bay Area, Philanthropedia ranked UCS first in the climate change advocacy arena.

The UCS portfolio extends well beyond environmental issues. It includes the following menu of specific concerns, where it has scored real local and national legislative victories:

• Global warming
• Clean Vehicles
• Clean Energy
• Nuclear Power
• Nuclear Weapons & Global Security
• Food & Agriculture
• Scientific Integrity
• Democracy & Science

Most of these science-based issues are obvious and longstanding concerns. The Scientific Integrity agenda arose in response to Bush Administration distortions and silencing of professional advice from career scientists in the government and on government panels. All of us involved in UCS were taken by surprise at the public response to this initiative. Thousands of people contributed and signed petitions in support of new regulations to protect the independence and free speech rights of government experts.

Because UCS shares James Ballard's concerns about getting scientists out of academia to engage in essential public discourse, the organization has recently added Science & Democracy to its agenda. To do something in an organized and effective way, UCS has established a new Center for Science and Democracy. The initiative was announced in The Scientist by the Center's new director, Andrew Rosenberg, and Lewis Branscomb, a widely known senior science policy advisor under multiple presidential administrations.

Branscomb has loaned his name to a series of Science and Democracy Forums to address major constraints on the roles of science, evidence-based decision-making and constructive debate in American public discourse and public policy. Each forum will have three components:

• a 1-3 day problem-solving workshop with invited experts and practitioners across relevant disciplines;

• an open "town hall" that builds a vigorous public dialogue between experts and the public around the core issues addressed in the workshop;

• follow-on projects and partnerships that drive forward emerging ideas and approaches.

The first forum took place at the end of last month on the topic "Improving Citizen Access to Government Scientific Information". Future topics include:

Communicating Science in a Distracted Age. This series addresses key challenges and opportunities to build public and decision-maker acceptance of policy-relevant science in the face of deliberate misinformation and distraction exacerbated by the expansion of digital media and competing cultural values.

Science and Regulation. This series examines constraints to incorporating science into the practice of key regulatory agencies, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency. The forums address barriers within agencies as well as barriers posed by broader cultural and political resistance to incorporating scientific evidence into regulation.

Science and Corporate Accountability. These forums are designed to build new understanding and partnerships to address the role of corporations in influencing public understanding of science and the outcomes of government decisions where corporate interests are at stake.

There has been a great deal of discussion on this blog about the role of science in society, science education, and public debate on science policy. Readers who are genuinely concerned about those issues, like James Ballard, should access the UCS web site and find out all the important initiatives the organization is undertaking. They range from providing information about securing nuclear materials around the globe and extending the tax credit for renewable energy to petitioning Pfizer to stop funding the Heartland Institute, a chief focus of climate change denial.

Contributing to UCS and getting involved in its activities are far more effective ways of supporting science in America than putting comments on the blog. Tips and tools for activists are available online. Participation in one of the Branscomb forums would be an excellent way of making your voice heard.

We all know that there are organized forces at work in our country trying to distort and drown out inconvenient scientific information. UCS is one of the most effective independent organizations standing up for science. You can help make it stronger. What better way to promote science can you think of?