In 1998, then-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Dr. Jane Luchenco called for a “New Social Contract with science”.  Based on her 1997 address as AAAS president and published in the journal Science,  Lubchenco argued that, in the face of emerging challenges, scientists needed to rethink their roles and responsibilities within society.   Next Wednesday she will be examining how far we’ve come – and how far we still need to go – on delivering on science’s social contract, at the University of Michigan meeting on Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse.  Her keynote lecture is open to the public, and will be live streamed here.

Lubchenco’s 1998 article was grounded in environmental responsibility, although her concept of “environment” was a broad one – encompassing human health, the economy, social justice and national security.  Each of these areas, she argued, depend to some degree on the structure, functioning, and resiliency of ecological systems.  And together, she suggested, the challenges they represent demand a re-alignment of the science enterprise with the needs of society.

This was the basis of her call for a new social contract with science – one that would “more adequately address the problems of the coming century than does our current scientific enterprise”.

Lubchenco suggested that such a contact should be predicated upon the assumptions that scientists will:

  • address the most urgent needs of society, in proportion to their importance;
  • communicate their knowledge and understanding widely in order to inform decisions of individuals and institutions; and
  • exercise good judgment, wisdom, and humility.

In working toward this, Lubchenco stressed the need for more research (basic and applied); more interdisciplinary scientists; and for more scientists with the “skills and savvy to work at the policy-science or management-science interface”.  She also deeply underlined the need for better science communication:

“Some of the most pressing needs include communicating the certainties and uncertainties and seriousness of different environmental or social problems, providing alternatives to address them, and educating citizens about the issues. In parallel to initiating new research, strong efforts should be launched to better communicate scientific information already in hand.”

In the seventeen years since her 1998 article, how effectively has the science community – and academia more broadly – embraced this call to action?  Where have we fallen short, where have we succeeded, and what are the rewards and pitfalls of embracing such social responsibility as a scientist?

On May 13, Dr. Lubchenco’s will be addressing these questions and more as she talks on Delivering on Science’s Social Contract at the University of Michigan.

In chatting about her keynote (I will be introducing her), we talked about not only the need for a greater connection between science and society, but the hunger she sees for this in early career scientists.  This desire for social relevancy is a powerful one, and one that is leading to young scientists getting involved, whether the establishment likes it or not.  And this gets to the heart of the question underpinning not only Dr. Lubchenco’s keynote, but the meeting as a whole – what is the role of academics and their institutions in public and political discourse in today’s crowded, resource constrained, and highly connected world?

You can attend Jane Lubchenco’s keynote in person if you are in Ann Arbor in the Amphitheater, Rackham Building, at 7:30 PM on May 13, or watch it live here.

Photo: U.S. Mission Photo by Eric Bridiers.  Source.  Used under Creative Commons


Andrew Maynard