Skip To Content Skip To Left Navigation
NSF Logo Search GraphicGuide To Programs GraphicImage Library GraphicSite Map GraphicHelp GraphicPrivacy Policy Graphic
OLPA Header Graphic

NSF Fact Sheet


Photo of Dr. Lane

An Open Letter to Scientists and Engineers

Let's Get the Word Out Together about Why Science Matters

by Neal F. Lane
(Former) Director, National Science Foundation

We are enjoying a golden age of discovery, as exciting research continues to uncover new knowledge about our universe. However, a different kind of golden age -- that of ever increasing funding for American science and engineering -- is clearly over. Some experienced researchers now look back nostalgically to the decades after World War II, when taxpayer support of science was almost unquestioned and an agenda for science was rarely discussed.

Today, public support must be earned. We can no longer expect it in the form of a blank check and an undefined agenda. This is entirely appropriate. At the same time, I remain very concerned that the nation will not be doing enough to maintain and strengthen its position as a world leader in science and engineering over the next several years.

It is now more vital than ever for us, the research community, to make a convincing case to the public about the tangible societal benefits that flow from science and technology, and the importance of investing adequately in research and education.

At the National Science Foundation, our surveys continue to show that more than two-thirds of the public believes that science is a net good. But the vast majority of people have no understanding of the scientific process; 98% of them don't know what research means. This gap should trouble all of us.

It is also troubling that many scientists and engineers, while concerned, do not think they can do anything about the gap. This may be because traditional scientific education does not prepare its graduates very well to assume a role as an activist in society, an ambassador for science.

I well understand the discomfort, from my own career experience. But during my years as director of NSF, I've come to understand the need for the research community to reach out to the public. In more personal terms, we need to engage in genuine public dialogues with our local communities, in the mold of what I call the "civic scientist." This concept embraces many types of outreach; not every researcher is well-suited (or available) for a particular type of activity, at a given time. But a little more awareness can go a long way. Even describing a current research effort in accessible terms to a neighbor can have unexpected -- and sometimes unknown -- results.

I might even venture to say that such outreach should be numbered among the professional responsibilities of scientists and engineers, and that graduate education in science and engineering should emphasize communication skills along with research skills. The result would be much better teachers and communicators to the public.

Preparation for research careers has not focused on this dimension, and most of us could use some help. I have been urging researchers to seek out and take advantage of the public affairs resources at their own institutions in making a compelling case to the public.

One particularly effective means to make our case is through the news media, a type of outreach that, perhaps more than others, fills many of us with trepidation. According to survey results discussed recently on National Public Radio, a quarter of U.S. scientists have never spoken to a reporter, and most others do so only once every year or two. Our public affairs resources are particularly valuable here. Practice is essential; we simply must learn to speak in terms that the general reporter -- representing our non-scientist friends and neighbors -- can understand. The impact can be astounding, because the news media amplify our words. (And this cuts both ways.) With only one interview, we can reach people across the state or the nation.

Let us redouble our efforts to work together. When a newsworthy discovery is made or about to be published, NSF would like to join with you to get the message out. In this way, the story will reach a much larger audience; and that will be good for all of us, and good for the nation.

It is true that the climate for science has changed forever. But change brings opportunity. If the sobering budget outlook prompts us all to communicate more broadly, more frequently and more effectively, then we have learned an important and necessary lesson that will serve the science and engineering community well in any climate.

June 1997



National Science Foundation
Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-8070
FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090

NSF Logo Graphic