AAAS ANNUAL MEETING, February 2018, Austin Texas, USA.

Session Summary:

Just as a pile of bricks is not a house, science without public engagement remains incomplete. Policymaking must be on the pulse of society’s wants or it too will fail in its application. Framing things as ‘science vs. society’ with science in the right doesn’t convince.

This session unites key actors striking a science & society policymaking balance to explore the interplay between ‘facts’ and ‘fears’ on 3 topical issues: vaccine hesitancy, food safety in nuclear disaster zone & eating bacteria for good health.

The tension between scientific & societal & political directions is intense. A political fact mightn’t be true, but people choose to believe it. A scientific fact might be true, but people choose not to. Yet from Texas to Toronto or Tokyo, the gap between perception and scientific reality is widening. Citizens wonder who to trust. The anonymity of social media replaces dialogue with diatribe. Opinion becomes polarized. There is no room to explain policy choices.

Via a flexible format of hard-talk-style interviews with questions, answers and reactions, panellists will unravel the complex matrix of scientific & relational challenges when correcting public misperceptions.

They will detail how varied cultural, social or historical contexts matter. Accepting that societal problems do not always have scientific solutions, speakers argue that communicating science demands not only scientific certainty, but a long-term, sustained and participatory dialogue.


Communications and Public Programs; Health & Pharmaceutical Sciences; Global Perspectives & Issues.

Relevance to Theme or Special Relevance to the Audience:

This topical session has been tailor-made to address the advancing science from discovery to application theme. The diversity of the panel and topicality of the talks are designed to appeal to the broad spectrum of AAAS attendees. The common aim of the three case-studies is to highlight the complexity of applying ‘proven’ science onto the needs and wants of something wholly unscientific, society.

Diversity Statement:

Science speaks to politics, policy and power precisely because it has evidence. But it must do so using ever-more complex, contingent and contested knowledge. The session strives for the maximum nationality, profile diversity and gender balance with 3 male and 3 female panellists from 5 countries and 4 continents. They bring to the discussion the unique insights of a world-leading toxicologist; the head of a science-led, G7 government agency expert in tumor research; an early career researcher; the VP of a global company expert in innovation and health & policy communication; and a former African Minister now responsible for UNESCO’s science strategy across Latin America & The Caribbean. The session is moderated by a well-known media & public communications specialist.


Public health; public engagement; science communication; policy; scientific integrity.

Japanese Organiser:
Dr Miyoko O. Watanabe (JP):
Deputy Executive Director, Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST).
Irish Flag

Professor Mark Ferguson (IRL):
Director General, Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland.
Irish Flag Moderator:
Aidan Gilligan (IRL):
CEO, Sci-Com - Making Sense of Science.
Indian Flag Discussant:
Seema Kumar (IND):
Vice President of Innovation, Global Health and Policy Communication at Johnson & Johnson (J&J).
Mozambique Flag Discussant:
Professor Lidia Brito (MZ):
Director of UNESCO’s Regional Bureau for Science in Latin America & The Caribbean; former Minister for Science of Mozambique.

Presentation Title: Vaccine Hesitancy: A Tale of Dispassionate Experts & Selfish Parents? — DOWNLOAD PRESENTATION

German Flag Speaker 1:
Professor Thomas Hartung (DE):
Professor of Evidence-Based Toxicology, Johns Hopkins University, USA & Professor of Pharmacology & Toxicology, University of Konstanz, Germany.

Talk Description:

I will explore responsible parenting, risk and expertise vis-à-vis vaccination policy. For example, where does the individual’s right to decide lie when government imposes a mandatory vaccination promising to prevent 5,000 measles cases, even while leading to 50 cases of side effects? The public plays a critical role in determining what positions policymakers will take and are influenced by media. From a science journalism perspective, I will critique the expected public deference to knowledge.

Presentation Title: From Frankenstein Science To Fukushima Food: Rebuilding Confidence During A Crisis

Japanese Flag Speaker 2:
Dr. Michinari Hamaguchi (JP):
President, Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST)

Talk Description:

I will explore the gap between what the Fukushima Prefecture’s food safety science tells us and public distrust. Pre-fed by ignorance and fear about GMOs, pesticides etc. the nuclear disaster was a tipping point imploding faith in science. From falling prices and farmer livelihoods to abandoned lands and jobs, this debate isn’t really about whether food gives you cancer. It’s about addressing modern disagreements about how food systems relate to their cultural, economic, and political contexts.

Presentation Title: Exploding Public Myths About Good & Bad Bacteria In Our Food Supply — DOWNLOAD PRESENTATION

Irish Flag Speaker 3:
Dr. Catherine Buckley (IRL):
Communications & Outreach Manager, APC Microbiome Institute, University College Cork.

Talk Description:

The interaction between bacteria & humans is essential to life. Disturbances in our Microbiome are linked to 90% of disease. Research shows that good bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract play a key role in our health. Food influences their activity. Habits have changed as we embrace easy-to-prepare & ready-to-eat meals. Yet, are prepared foods too clean? What are functional foods or probiotics? How much antibiotics do we eat? Are deadly food pathogens common? Mixed messages put us all at risk.