AAAS Update: Drunks with Lamp-Posts

Well, the 2008 AAAS Annual Meeting here in Boston was fun! I didn’t expect that. I’m not a huge fan of scientific conferences because I have an extremely short attention span. And I haven’t been blogging a lot – I’d rather just enjoy the frenzy. I’ve been averaging 4.5 hours of sleep a night, to the dismay of my roomies! But Discover has been blogging regularly, as have some of the Sciblings.

Saturday’s highlight should have been the appearance by representatives of the Obama and Clinton campaigns, who spoke on the candidates’ scientific policy positions. Sheril already summarized (update: and critiqued ) this session, which got a lot of buzz and was better attended than many of the plenary speeches. But I wasn’t impressed. The reps were predictably reluctant to endorse tangible positions on their candidates’ behalf. For specifics, we were told to go read various speeches by the candidates; the audience began snickering the third or fourth time Obama’s rep told us to visit Answering a question on GINA (the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act) and genetic privacy, neither rep seemed to know anything about GINA – they referred only to the general concept of privacy concerns as might be covered in health legislation. Shouldn’t they be familiar with legislation currently in play? In the Senate?

Of course one can’t expect either candidate, or any one campaign rep, to be qualified to speak in depth to every scientific issue that informs policy. I thought the questions asked by the scientists in the audience reflected reasonable expectations on that score. And scientists do understand that any trend favoring a scientific foundation for policy decisions would be a victory. Hillary Clinton’s representative, who performed much better than Obama’s, characterized the current Administration’s relationship with its science advisers as “the same relationship a drunk has to a lamp-post – for support, not illumination.” But the whole session underscored the need to have the candidates themselves, not their proxies, answer these questions, as would hopefully happen in a “real” science debate.

My favorite event Sunday – indeed of the whole conference – was a symposium, “Communicating Science in a Religious America,” organized by Scibling Matthew Nisbet at Framing Science. The entire 3-hour session was filled to capacity, with people peering in from the hall and sitting in the aisles. The quality of presentations was universally high – the focus here was on communication, and the presenters appear to know whereof they spoke, especially that humor helps the message go down.

And to end on an up note, my frustration that things don’t really change for the better in policy circles – a feeling brought on by dozens of talks on sustainability, global health, and climate change – was mediated somewhat by an inspirational plenary speech Saturday evening, given by Nicholas Negroponte of One Laptop, One Child. It was wonderful to see such a simple application of technology making a real difference to children’s lives NOW. I wish every child in America had a laptop. Maybe when that goal is met in countries like Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, we’ll be shamed into making that happen.

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