Those who’ve followed the White House Twitter feed (check out the lower left column of this blog) might have seen this already. Thursday afternoon the White House announced the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients. The medal is the highest civilian honor of the United States, and this year’s recipients will be recognized on August 12. Amongst the honorees are two scientists recognized for their scientific achievements: Dr. Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University and Dr. Janet Rowley of the University of Chicago. The Presidential Medal of Freedom can be given to those in most any walk of life, so acknowledging scientists and engineers is not necessarily a given each year. The last scientist or engineer to be so honored was Dr. Francis Collins, the nominee to head the National Institutes of Health, back in 2007.
Readers are probably aware of Dr. Hawking’s work in physics (or at least his appearances on The Simpsons and Futurama), but may not know of Dr. Rowley’s work in discovering the first consistent translocation of a human cancer. Drs. Rowley and Hawking are in excellent company, with at least two Nobel laureates and one former head of state also being honored this year. Congratulations to all honorees, past and present. Those looking for Dr. Hawking to perform will likely be disappointed.
From what I understand, one of the themes of the book Unscientific America is that scientists need to do more connecting with the public about their work, and a better job with those connections. I wonder if this group of guerilla scientists described by The Guardian would meet with their approval (I think so). The group Guerilla Science is barnstorming British music festivals, sprinkling in science presentations linked to the music, food and stars found at outdoor festivals. A great thing this approach embodies is that it doesn’t bring new topics into the discussion, but deepens what’s around the audience. Nothing seems as forced as it might in other formats.
This would only be the first step in a process of recruiting more of the public to support research funding (which is perhaps an un(der)stated (and naïve) theme of Unscientific America – that if they only understood the value of science they would support us) Understanding that science is not boring, and surrounds most human activity, will not automatically persuade people that the U.K. Research Councils, The U.S. National Science Foundation, or another science funding agency, needs more money. But it’s a good start. The next, and even harder step, is persuading people (and their representatives) that the funding priorities of science are more important than other equally valuable (and valued) policy goals. That is the eternal struggle.