Excitement and Caution at AAAS

Reporting On / by Rob Mitchum /

Thousands gather in Chicago for the world's largest scientific conference.

The news last week that Congress had approved $20 billion in new federal funding might have led to the launching of fireworks over a Kool & the Gang soundtrack had it been announced at the Auto Show. But at the other major gathering in Chicago over the weekend, the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, weighty questions loomed even amidst celebrations of new federal investment and presentations of major research findings.

While key policy discussions opened with a collective sigh of relief over the transition from Bush to Obama, many concluded with a question: What do we do now? As science policy columnist David Goldston pointed out during a panel held 12 hours after the stimulus bill passed the Senate, Obama wants to restore science to its “rightful place,” but few seem to know what that is. (See Seed’s Rightful Place Project.) “I think it’s fair to say that this administration has already paid more conscious attention to science issues and science staffing than any administration, perhaps ever,” Goldston said. “But that doesn’t mean that everything is going to be easy.”

During the multiple panels on climate change, scientists expressed guarded optimism over both the increased media acceptance of humanity’s role in climate change and the tone of a new administration that promises to be proactive in understanding humans’ effect on the planet. John Holdren, who was to attend a Friday panel on Climate Change and the Media, had the matter of a confirmation hearing to attend to. But standing in for Holdren, Stanford University climatologist Stephen Schneider pleaded with both scientists and journalists to not rest on their laurels as the debate over climate change moves, at long last, from science and popular culture to the political sphere.

The meeting opened on the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, and so it seemed symbolic that panel after panel held reminders of Darwin’s continuing influence on science: from Dominic Johnson’s idea that the United States Army is selecting for smarter and more dangerous insurgents in Iraq to Steven Benner’s efforts to recreate the origin of life by synthesizing an artificial genetic system that has six nucleotides instead of four.

The latter finding, which Benner described as “Darwinian evolution in a test tube,” encapsulated the thrill of the AAAS meeting at its best. American science’s best orators provided insights, both fascinating and creepy, to a rapt audience, gleefully playing on the fundamental questions of what makes life, who we are, and where we’re headed.
The AAAS annual meeting is a kind of binge for science addicts who try to drink from the fire hose of discovery. The choice of fare is overwhelming, and compelling: Elizabeth Loftus on how to diet through false memories; Paul Sereno showing off a 90-million-year-old “boar croc” skull; Fermilab scientists describing their frantic race against the LHC; a prediction that computers will conquer humans in the game of Go within a quarter century; and promise for epigenetic approaches to cancer therapy. For the addicts, anxiety was predicated by a sense that something even more interesting was being presented in the next room.

While the doomsday scenarios and politically cynical sessions were Conversations That Needed To Be Had, the lasting impression of the meeting — for scientists and journalists alike — was the sense of wonder that spread through the gathering. As moving as Al Gore’s call to arms was on Friday night (in front of a set that resembled, perhaps appropriately, Superman’s Fortress of Solitude), its pessimism couldn’t match the thrill of discovery found in the Hyatt’s underground labyrinth of conference rooms. Across town at the Auto Show, car companies prespent their bailout money on stage lighting and supermodels to hype up prototypes that may never be made. At the AAAS annual meeting, a simple slideshow and a laser pointer focused on the ideas, innovation, and findings of a world looking ahead.

Originally published February 17, 2009

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