At the end of the symposium, NAS president Marcia McNutt identified four take-home messages “if we want to ensure that science remains the endless frontier.”
1. The first involves the education and mentoring of students. Many of the researchers who are approaching the end of their careers were drawn to science by the great accomplishments of the 1950s and 1960s, and particularly by the Apollo program, McNutt said. “We saw Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon, and I’m sure there are many in this room who can recite those words that Neil Armstrong said when he took his first steps on the Moon.” Science needs more exciting new projects to attract young people to research. It also needs to prepare and reach out to everyone, not just to the members of particular groups. “If we don’t engage the full of American society in being excited about the scientific enterprise—all genders, all races, everyone, pulling from our full talent—we aren’t going to be at the top in science and technology anymore.” In turn, creating a diverse workforce requires changing the “indentured servitude model” of graduate school education so that more students remain in science rather than leaving for other fields.
2. The second point McNutt identified involves engagement between science and the public. Part of the traditional model of science was that scientists did not have a responsibility to engage with the public; scientists could even be denigrated for putting effort into public communication. That attitude has started to change, but scientists need to do much more to engage fully with the public, McNutt said. Communication also needs to go in both directions, so scientists learn what members of the public think and need and what it takes to earn the public’s trust. “It used to be simply about wanting the public to support our budgets, but it’s much more than that right now.”
3. The third point involves the research portfolio. When McNutt was director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, her board loved hearing about high-risk projects that had failed, because failures often led to new understandings that no one had anticipated. But funding failure is not easy for federal agencies, especially when money is tight. Deciding on a research portfolio is also related to the issue of whether to fund projects or fund people, McNutt observed. Funding projects through a sort of lottery system to ensure that the same people are not funded all of the time inevitably reduces the continuity of research careers, as projects and people start doing research and then stop. Yet, research dollars also need to be spent in the most effective way, which requires a diversified research portfolio. This issue “deserves a much deeper dive,” said McNutt.
4. The fourth and final point she cited involves the reward system in science, whether for high-risk research, mentoring and training, or public engagement. Science places competing demands on its practitioners, such as enhancing transparency while preventing espionage. But science is also a positive-sum game, not a zero-sum game. People can get ahead without other people losing ground. Some people are convinced that science and technology are not working for them, but that is why science needs to be much more inclusive, distributed, and participatory. “We have to reach everyone in the country,” said McNutt. “That’s what’s good for America.”