Missed opportunity? On AAAS President’s Address

14 Feb

Note (Feb 15, 2014): The AAAS President’s Address is now available online via the AAAS website! Please do take a little bit of time to watch it. Opinions are mine but would love to know what you think. Also thanking AAAS for letting me know that the video is available.

In case you don’t know yet, I am currently in Chicago attending both the International Public Science Events Conference (just wrapped up today) and the AAAS annual meeting (American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, also the largest general science meeting in the world with more than 10,000 participants).

Maybe it is because I have been going to sessions on how to better communicate science and to reach a broader audience for the past 2 days, maybe it is because I am always pretty sensitive about the level of a talk when students and young scientists are part of the audience. But for me, the speech by Nobel Prize Laureate and AAAS President Phillip Sharp on the first night of the AAAS annual meeting, did not to inspire me.

IMG_20140213_185000698 (1)

Philip Sharp is a molecular biologist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993 with Richard Roberts, “for their discoveries of split genes.” If you studied biochemistry in the past (oh, wait, I did!), you would know that it is a pretty big deal (well, it is a huge deal). Back in the days, we didn’t know that the DNA code for a gene is not really just one continuous chain of information. What Sharp and Roberts found was that after the DNA code is translated into mRNA, parts of it called “introns”are removed. And it is based on this processed (spliced) mRNA that proteins, the building blocks of an organism, are actually made. The cool thing is that sometimes different ways to splice the DNA code could result in different proteins being produced. You can learn more about it from the slide show provided by the Nobel Prize website.

Like I said, I studied biochemistry for my undergrad degree, so this is really exciting for me.  I was truly looking forward to a talk in which he incorporate his experience and vision (or that of AAAS) for science, for future scientists, and for this AAAS meeting.

Instead, we were treated with “Discovery, Invention & Entrepreneurship need to be better linked for science to meet global challenges.” In my plain language, I think it means that 1. basic science research can significantly inform applied science, while applied science can mobilize basic science, and 2. scientists across disciplines, applied scientists, and the industry should collaborate better to solve the global challenges we will be facing in the next few decades, if not years: health care, food shortage, and I think the last one is poverty. The overall theme was actually quite good, especially considering the debate on funding rationale for basic science research nowadays. He concluded with the following question:

summary question

(If you are wondering, although you really shouldn’t, the expected answer was NO…)

Yet, the delivery just did not match up to the message. As technically the first talk for the day, it was rather stiff, scripted, and factual. Why should I feel motivated to do this? What’s the vision? What would be the significance? (see postscript) The more interesting part of the presentation though, was this quote from Susan Hockfield, the President of MIT from 2004-2012:

quote Susan Hockfield

(Ironically, none of the 5 opening talks this evening was by a female speaker – they are all white males above the age of 50. Nothing against them…but just want to point that out, and I was not the only one to notice that.)

Perhaps. AAAS is not an event for the general public. Yet with so many budding scientists in the audience, and the brightest high school students attending the conference via the American Junior Academy of Sciences, with attendees from all over the world, I feel frustrated and sad that this was a missed opportunity- that this speech did not make me feel like I should go home and think about how I could contribute to moving science and innovation forward. I just wanted to go back to my room and write this post.

It doesn’t mean that all scientists should be perfect science communicators. Not all of us can be Brian Cox or Neil deGrasse Tyson, and not all talks should be like their talks to the general public. Yet I believe that we can all find ways to improve ourselves, or talk to others (scientists, non-scientists, your parents, cousins, pretty much anyone you can find) to make sure the message is delivered to and understood by the audience.

Am I too critical? If you were at the talk, I would love to know what you think. Although this dampened my enthusiasm a little, I am still super excited about all the talks that I will get to attend at AAAS – now the question is, how to I pick which talk to go to…there are so many and all of them are so interesting…

PS. I hope that AAAS will post the video so that there is more context to this blog post. In the mean time, here is a photo I took of the transcription of the talk (via voice recognition I think, so might not be exact). I personally don’t like terms such as framework, model, convergence (which was used a lot), etc etc. I felt quite disconnected…

transcribed speech


5 Responses to “Missed opportunity? On AAAS President’s Address”

  1. Eric Mills March 6, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    Sharp’s slides remind me of George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language”. It’s something he should perhaps have read.

    • Terrific T March 6, 2014 at 4:47 pm #

      LOL. Now I am curious about the essay…

      • Eric Mills March 6, 2014 at 8:17 pm #

        I highly recommend it, and it’s online in a bunch of places–just google the title.

  2. genegeek March 13, 2014 at 11:43 am #

    I went to the 2012 AAAS meetings with junior scientists (teens) and they were not a fan of the opening (Flattening the World) of Nina Fedoroff. They didn’t want to attend any of the big lectures – but we luckily got to see Hans Roslin and that evened things out.

    • Terrific T March 13, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

      Thanks Catherine for the first-hand comments from the students! I think 3/5 big lectures this year were good. I was super impressed by the ones by Steven Chu and Alan Alda, and heard great things about the one by John A. Rogers. I hope that students did not get discouraged by this terrible opening and had the chance to see those other ones…


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