Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Scientist Laureate position for the US?

This is at least thought-provoking.  Lamar Smith (R-Texas, chair of the US House science committee, famous for things like this) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA, about as far from Lamar Smith as I can imagine with the possible exception of Nancy Pelosi) are co-sponsoring a bill that would create a position called Scientist Laureate of the United States.  This person would be appointed by the President following nomination by the National Academy of Sciences, and would be meant to act as an inspirational figure, making public appearances and furthering the cause of science.  This could be a good thing, provided (1) an actual accomplished scientist is chosen, not someone who has to satisfy a political agenda; and (2) the person chosen is charismatic and able to use the bully pulpit effectively.  The Science Laureate should do more than show up at middle schools - they should get major exposure (e.g., late night talk shows; hosting a science program on a major network with actual resources to make it good; having the ear of Congress, perhaps even the limited ability to insist on speaking at a hearing of the House or Senate science-related committees).  (Halftime at the Superbowl is probably out of line.)

While I applaud scientists with great public outreach track records (Neil deGrasse Tyson just spoke at our commencement), that should not be the sole criterion.  If this passes, hopefully Congress will keep in the bit about the NAS making the choice.  Suggestions are invited in the comments.


Anonymous said...

The subset of charismatic & outgoing figures that are distinguished scientists and members of the NAS is probably very small.

Moreover, any such person bound to cause the ire of conservatives, become political and immediately neutered in outreach capacity as a result of past views on controversial issues.

Any prominent scientist that has been "neutral" or reticent on important issues of the past decade is probably not very charismatic or too aloof to appoint to such a position.

Douglas Natelson said...

That's a little cynical even for me. Just looking at chemists, I can already spot some NAS members that might fit the bill. Bertozzi? Carter? Lieber? Mirkin? Nocera? Ratner? Admittedly those are mostly nano people, but that's the blog topic. Physics and applied physics raise people like McEuen, Coppersmith, Cornell. Ooh! Bob Laughlin - that'd be a hoot.

Anonymous said...

While cynical, I think his second remark is quite valid: in this country (!) if the person in this position would make statements based solely on science, but in doing so antagonizes one or the other party because of their talking points, this position will very quickly be politicized which will indeed effectively neuter the impartial scientific credentials.

Impartiality is easily destroyed by attacking someone from a partizan standpoint. Even not responding to such things and "staying high above the fray" damages the credentials of this position (and calls for "ivory tower remarks").