The Evolving Climate for Neuroscience and Society
Alan Leshner, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer
American Association for the Advancement of Science
The relationship between science and society is critical to the way in which science is perceived and the way that scientific findings are used. For science to prosper, the scienceĖsociety relationship has to be a strong one. The problem is that we have never experienced a period with quite the amount of tension that now exists between science and society. The overall relationship is beginning to erode and has tremendous consequences for the way scientists can do their job and the way that science can prosper. Advances in science are coming at a tremendous pace and neuroimaging is responsible for quantum jumps in understanding the way we study mental health and addiction disorders.
However, other areas of science are not doing as well. Itís important not to underestimate the aggregative consequences of the sporadic incidents that occur within science. Internally, scientific misconduct, human subject concerns, animal welfare issues, and conflict of interest negatively affect the broader societal context for science. Externally, people respect science but donít understand what it is. Tension between scientific findings and political or economic concerns and core human values has increased with stem cell research, sex and gender studies, and genetics of behavior. The public is uncomfortable with neuroscienceís ability to look into the human brain and watch it in action. This has led to an emergence of neuroethics as a new field. The overlay of societal values has consequences for science in that society wants to influence science and not the other way around.
Education alone will not work to improve this relationship. We need to adopt a more assertive strategy and engage the public on issues to try to find common ground. We need to change from communicating to the public to communicating with the public by asking what questions need to be answered. The field of genetics has taken this approach; now neuroscience needs to follow their lead.