On a Mission: Bridging the Gap Between Science and the Public
There are few things that raise the ire of Alan Leshner more than the misrepresentation of scientific fact in the public arena.
Take, for example, the popular “This is Your Brain on Drugs” advertisement that depicts an egg frying in a cooking pan as a way of implying that drug abuse “fries” your brain. While the ad developers had good intentions in discouraging drug abuse, “It is not scientifically accurate,” says Alan, who is a former Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the NIH, but who now serves as Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Executive Publisher of the renowned Science magazine.
Despite what many viewers may believe after viewing the advertisement, “Drugs don’t literally fry your brain,” says the noted scientist. He took pains to prove his point during a recent Library of Congress webcast talk on drug addiction in which he showed radiology image scans of human brains after radioactive cocaine had been injected into the base of their brains, in a region known to control our pleasure seeking cravings, the nucleus accumbens. The images, which literally illustrate a cocaine “high” in action, show that as cocaine and other addictive drugs travel to various parts of the brain, they activate these regions at the cellular level of the brain’s neuronal circuitry –lighting up these areas like Christmas trees on radiology scans –which contribute to feelings of euphoria and future cravings, leading to addiction as drug use is repeated.
This lesson in scientific accuracy is just one example of Alan’s mission to make sure that Americans better understand science, and that scientists better understand what the public wants and needs from them.
“I believe in public engagement with science,” says Alan. “That is, in dialogue, communication, bringing scientists and the rest of the public together to work on common issues, listening to each other on issues ranging from evolution and global warming to genetics and drug addiction.”
With a keen eye for detail but also with a “big picture” vision, Alan is the quintessential scientist. His remarkable career has included researching the mysteries of the brain, the relationship between biology and behavior (including their ties to mental disorders, mood and emotion), and his current passion for spearheading policy-making endeavors that have far-reaching impacts on our understanding and awareness of science in the public arena and in the classroom.
Says Alan matter-of-factly: “Although I remain interested in laboratory research, I have always also been very intrigued by the kind of broader questions involving science that affect society at large,” an emphasis that he first encountered earlier in his career when he accepted a position as a rotating program officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Washington, DC, where he got involved with important policy-related projects.
After whetting his appetite for policy-making, Alan, now head of AAAS (the world’s largest multi-disciplinary scientific and engineering society dedicated to enhancing understanding of research and its careers) went on to hold a variety of senior positions at NSF where he focused on basic research in the biological, behavioral and social sciences as well as on science policy and science education. He also served as Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) where he was highly credited with using science-based research to change the public’s perception of drug addiction, and earlier served as Deputy Director and Acting Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), where he worked similarly on issues like schizophrenia and other mental disorders.
Says Alan: “The link between science and the rest of society is a little fragile these days. It’s fragile in part because the public doesn’t understand what is and what isn’t science, and in part because science is encroaching on areas of core human values, like who we are as humans and what makes us human. We have a lot of work to do in getting science and society on the same page and going in the same direction.”
Formerly Professor of Psychology at Bucknell University, Alan received his undergraduate degree in Psychology from Franklin and Marshall College, and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Physiological Psychology from Rutgers University. President George Bush appointed him to the National Science Board in 2004.
A strong proponent of science curricula that engage students in a meaningful way, Alan believes that connecting students with everyday, relevant aspects and phenomena of life is a surefire way to excite them about science learning. “For example,” he says, “I’m fond of saying that most people are interested in their brains because they’re interested in their minds. This makes studying the brain fascinating, because people think it will give them insight into their minds, into their self, into their individuality.”
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