November 2010

Meeting Symposium: Scientific Credibility and the Politicization of Science

ASBMB will host a special symposium titled “Scientific Credibility and the Politicization of Science,” sponsored by the society’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee, at the 2011 annual meeting, April 9–13, 2011, in Washington, D.C. The panel will feature Elizabeth H. Blackburn, James J. McCarthy and Michael Specter.

The “Scientific Credibility and the Politicization of Science" panel will feature Elizabeth H. Blackburn, James J. McCarthy and Michael Specter.

In a perfect world, science is a purely objective endeavor that only seeks to answer questions and uncover facts; it is a discipline that rises above contentious and divisive issues.

Unfortunately, as we know, we do not live in a perfect world.

Just in the past decade alone, science has been front-and-center in several controversial political, religious and socio-economic debates, including the accepted use of embryonic stem cells, the potential effects of genetically modified foods, the teaching of evolution in schools and the validity of climate change data.

However, the trend most troubling for many scientists, particularly evident in the latter two examples, is not only that science more frequently is being exploited and sensationalized, but that it often is misrepresented, misquoted and generally misunderstood.

It’s an issue of incredible concern, and the reason why the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology will host a special symposium titled “Scientific Credibility and the Politicization of Science,” sponsored by the society’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee, at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, April 10, 2011, at the ASBMB annual meeting at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center.

One of the consequences of ignorance of the scientific process is its politicization by those who chose to misrepresent or misuse the results of these processes to their own ends. “The politicization of science is always going to be around to some degree,” notes ASBMB Past-president Bettie Sue Masters, the Robert A. Welch distinguished professor in chemistry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. “But it’s becoming more and more of a problem at the national and international levels that the credibility of science is being called into question.” This is obvious particularly when certain issues, requiring scientific data and input, have potential political impact.

At least one possible remedy is increased involvement of the scientific community in communicating scientific processes and outcomes so that they are understood by the public at large and not considered diabolical or leading to ominous outcomes. This special symposium hopefully will spur some of that involvement.

Appropriately set within our nation’s capital, this panel discussion will bring together three exemplary individuals who each will share his or her own unique perspective on how science, the media, politics and society interact, and how these different groups all have contributed to the current state of affairs.

With the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting being held in Washington D.C. this year, there never has been a better time to participate in science advocacy. If you are planning on attending, be sure to get in touch with the ASBMB public affairs staff Geoffrey Hunt or Benjamin Corb to try and arrange a meeting with your congressional representatives. Congressmen always are interested in hearing from their constituents. Whether you want to spend a whole day or just a few minutes on Capitol Hill, your willingness to speak on behalf of science will provide volume to the community’s collective voice, and will continue to strengthen our position in promoting scientific issues.

Importantly, a discussion of what scientists can do to communicate their message more effectively and restore their credibility also will take place.

The panel will feature Elizabeth H. Blackburn, the Morris Herztein professor of biology and physiology in the department of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco and the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; James J. McCarthy, the Alexander Agassiz professor of biological oceanography at Harvard University and past-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Michael Specter, an award-winning author and science, technology and public health writer for The New Yorker.

All three panelists have ample personal experience in various aspects of scientific credibility and the politicization of science, which should make for an exciting and thoughtful discussion. Blackburn, for example, was appointed by George W. Bush to his President’s Council on Bioethics in 2001 but later was dismissed controversially in 2004, to the anger of many scientists, based on her support for embryonic stem cell research.

McCarthy also is no stranger to the world of policy, serving as chairman of the board for the Union of Concerned Scientists and having worked closely on two recent international panels dealing with climate change. For the past two decades, McCarthy has worked as an author, reviewer and as a co-chair on the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Specter is intimately familiar with the subject of people rejecting scientific truths in favor of comfortable fictions, as it is the focus of his recent book, “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives.” In addition to his position at The New Yorker magazine, he has contributed to the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Click here to read the 2011 annual meeting thematic overviews.

For information on  annual meeting registration, housing and abstract submission, click here.

“All of us on the Public Affairs Advisory Committee are thrilled to have assembled such a great panel to discuss this timely topic at our meeting,” says Masters. “We believe this special event can help get our members and other scientists more engaged in communicating their work to the public, so we would encourage everyone who is able to attend.”

Nick Zagorski ( is a science writer at ASBMB.

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