A Science Initiation

The following is a guest blog by Roben McCabe, Executive Assistant, Global Issues Group at the British Embassy in Washington.


As someone with a background in International Conflict Resolution, I was a bit unsure if my attendance at Last week’s American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Annual Meeting would be too high level for my policy-oriented mind. With it’s myriad of sessions, an exhibit hall and a micro science festival in the form of AAAS Family Science Days. I feared that I would be walking into three days of obscure acronyms, high level science jargon, and PowerPoint presentations filled with complicated formulae.

Much to my delight, there were dozens of sessions competing for my attendance due to their interesting areas of focus, and apparent accessibility to a wide range of conference attendees. On Saturday, fresh from my flight from DC, I walked into a session about Future Earth, the 10-year international research initiative focused on global environmental change and global sustainability. Sir Robert Watson, Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (UK) presented the current global focus on sustainability as being less than stellar, but with the potential to be much worse. The UK was presented as having great climate change legislation, and this could be maintained through the efforts of Future Earth.

I broke up my time in sessions by looking around the exhibit hall, and seeing the science-oriented work various exhibitors were doing. Just to name a few examples, there was a particularly large booth dedicated to the EU’s science work, another for NASA, and yet another dedicated to an environmental experiment being conducted in the Boston area. It was around the time I was passed by a pack of children chasing a remote-controlled R2D2 replica that I determined that this conference made a visible and highly effective effort to make science fun. Although there was plenty of really interesting and immensely complicated research being presented, it was packaged in a manner that attracted a wide variety of attendees. This point was driven home by the busy, if not nearly chaotic, Family Science Day that was adjacent to the exhibits which consisted of hands-on science demonstrations designed for students in grades 6-12.

During a session on Sunday, Professor Robin Grimes, Chief Scientific Adviser for the FCO spoke about nuclear energy and some of the issues related to its use in the future. What I learnt was that most nuclear energy comes from Generation 2 reactors but in the future we’ll be building the much safer and economical Generation 4 reactors. With the life cycle of many current reactors coming to an end, the focus of the next decade will be on developing the next fleet. The future will demand a cheap, safe, proliferation resistant and stable fuel, although this is no easy task.

My time at the conference ended fittingly with a discussion about the importance of science festivals. AAAS President, Phillip A. Sharp highlighted that science festivals provide science role models for young people and that AAAS would focus on this in the coming year. Science festivals are integral for getting young people engaged in science by giving it a face. While not necessarily billed as a science festival, there were certainly elements in place at this meeting that were highly engaging and with a focus for a younger generation.

I may not be the young audience that these science festivals aim to capture, but my lack of science background didn’t stop me from being engaged in the conference. Whether or not I am the target audience for this type of outreach, it worked!

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