Science and Civil Society

Young leaders in science and social innovation. Community building. Civic engagement. These are all areas of passion and investment for the Rita Allen Foundation—we sometimes call them our “domains.” But that makes them sound separate from each other, as if you close the door on community building, walk down the hall, and open another to get to civic engagement. In fact, there’s a great deal of overlap among these areas, and often the work we support draws on all three.

Take for instance scientific literacy.

We have been having rich discussions about the relationship between science and civil society, especially anticipating the clarion call of a guest, Robbert Dijkgraaf, who became the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study on July 1. Professor Dijkgraaf came to Princeton from Amsterdam, where he was President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also a champion of science in the public sphere, writing popular books and columns, creating a website for children, and giving live televised lectures complete with magic tricks. He exudes an enthusiasm for scientific discovery that brings to mind your first great science teacher, the one who made you want to spend your life unlocking the mysteries of nature with equations, experiments and keen observation. His talk also brought to mind a number of organizations the Rita Allen Foundation supports.

We are supporting a new outreach program of the Cancer Institute of New Jerseythat will allow promising students from underrepresented populations to participate in state-of-the-art biomedical research. These programs are building up leaders in science—the Rita Allen Foundation Scholars of the future—from their early beginnings. They also are building communities, by creating a path to fulfilling jobs, and by forging connections between science-centered institutions and the neighborhoods around them.

Scientific training will also give these students the potential to have a powerful voice in our civic life. When we talk about civic engagement, it’s often in the context of voting or campaigns. But in our world, there’s almost nothing that isn’t touched by science, technology, engineering and math.  Improving the voting system itself will take deep knowledge of statistics and information technology (organizations such as the Voting Information Project and TurboVote are leading the way). Move to topics like protecting healthy environments and fighting chronic diseases, and science—and scientists—are an integral part of any solution.

Professor’ Dijkgraaf speaks about the necessity of scientists’ engagement with social problems with some urgency. In addition to his other roles, he continues to serve as Co-Chair of the InterAcademy Council, the international network of the world’s science academies, which provides guidance on pressing global issues in which science can play a part—issues like climate change. There are big challenges ahead, and leadership from scientists will be essential in facing them. That’s why the PopTech Science Fellows program, which helps to connect scientists from diverse disciplines and train them in teamwork and communication, has such an important potential role.

Professor Dijkgraaf argues that if scientists would put a bit more of their energy and creativity into forging collaborations and explaining their work, it could go a long way toward promoting scientific literacy among the general population.

If we put more energy into supporting and appreciating science, it could also have huge results. We should ask: How can our society better nurture scientific creativity? How can we ensure that all people are grounded in scientific literacy, as a basis for the strong communities and civic innovations of the future? For that matter, we should ask: What’s the last book I read by a scientist? When did I last hunt down scientific papers referenced in a newspaper article, or take a free online science course? How long has it been since I looked at the world around me with the eyes of a scientist, with eyes full of wonder?