Press Release

New American Academy of Arts and Sciences Initiative to Address Complex Relationship Between Scientists and the Public


Public Face of Science Project Will Develop New Assessments of Public Interactions with Science, Technology, Medicine

CAMBRIDGE, MA | MARCH 15, 2016 — The American Academy of Arts and Sciences today announced the formation of a new initiative, The Public Face of Science. Over the next three years, with members drawn from among national leaders in communication, law, journalism, public affairs, and the physical, social and life sciences, The Public Face of Science initiative will examine public attitudes toward science and identify issues that require greater attention from scholars and practitioners alike.

Science and technology touch every corner of American life and strongly influence citizens’ choices and their contributions to society. For decades, polls have consistently indicated strong public support for scientists’ achievements. Yet new concerns have arisen about the extent to which that trust will be maintained in the information age. Studies conducted as part of The Public Face of Science initiative will explore this complex and evolving relationship between scientists and the public. Examples of the studies conducted will include examinations of: (1) how the physical, social, and life sciences are portrayed in the media; (2) the factors that influence public confidence in the reliability of scientific findings; and (3) the ways in which science impacts public policy, including policies about responses to natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and climate change.

“Since its founding in 1780, in the spirit of sharing useful knowledge, the American Academy has facilitated the dissemination of insights from science and medicine,” said American Academy President Jonathan F. Fanton. “As an important next step in that tradition, The Public Face of Science project will examine closely the factors that build the public’s confidence in science, and the appropriate application of scientific knowledge in the public sphere.”

American Academy Members Richard Meserve and Geneva Overholser will serve as the co-chairs of The Public Face of Science project.

A physicist, lawyer, and member of the American Academy’s Council and Trust, Meserve is a Senior Of Counsel with Covington & Burling LLP. He is chairman of the International Nuclear Safety Group, chartered by the International Atomic Energy Agency. From 2003 to 2014, he served as president of the Carnegie Institution for Science, having previously served as the Chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A Senior Fellow at the Democracy Fund, Overholser was the director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism from 2008 to 2013. Previously, she held the Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting for the Missouri School of Journalism. In addition, Overholser has been editor of the Des Moines Register, ombudsman of the Washington Post, and a member of the editorial board of The New York Times.

“Research in science and engineering is integral to every aspect of our society, yet the scientific community continues to face challenges in portraying its work to the public,” said Meserve. “While scientific literacy is an important goal, it is equally important to convey the nature of scientific discovery to the general population, so that citizens can better understand the process by which scientists arrive at a consensus on matters pertaining to their health, environment, security, and well-being. This American Academy study will take several approaches to understand better how the public arrives at its views regarding the output of scientific inquiry.”

“The future will be enormously shaped by non-traditional forms of communication,” said Overholser. “People today have so many ways to learn about science and its relevance to public policy, and those outlets are becoming increasingly important as the number of traditional science reporters continues to diminish. The Public Face of Science initiative will explore this evolving landscape and the effect that it has on the public’s confidence in the validity of scientific information.”

In addition to Meserve and Overholser, members of the steering committee for The Public Face of Science project include Emilio Bizzi, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Geoffrey Cowan, University of Southern California; Ellen Futter, American Museum of Natural History; Sylvester James Gates, Jr., University of Maryland; President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology; Kathleen Hall Jamieson, University of Pennsylvania; Robert Hauser, National Research Council and the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Rush Holt, American Association for the Advancement of Science; Venkatesh Narayanamurti, Harvard University; Nora Newcombe, Temple University; Kenneth Prewitt, Columbia University; Rebecca Rimel, Pew Charitable Trusts;Cristián Samper, Wildlife Conservation Society; and Samuel Thier, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

The Public Face of Science project is funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is one of the country’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers, convening leaders from the academic, business, and government sectors to respond to the challenges facing the nation and the world. Current Academy research focuses on science and technology policy; higher education, the humanities, and the arts; global security and energy; and American institutions and the public good. The Academy’s work is advanced by its elected members, who are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs from around the world. 




The Public Face of Science

Richard Andrew Meserve