Published 2018-04-10

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AAAS researchers concerned about fact aversion

This year too, Mistra monitored the big science conference held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). As usual, the seminars covered many areas of science. Trends include the apparent growth in seminars about communication from various perspectives and why some groups do not assimilate facts. Several of the speakers at the conference expressed great concern about the reduced block grants for basic research in the United States.

Austin hosted this year’s conference, which took place in February. The city’s slogan is ‘Keep Austin Weird’. This is apparently due to two factors: it is a Democrat-governed stronghold in the otherwise Republican state of Texas, and it is a university city. Someone has said that the slogan is the result of a misspelling: it was supposed to be ‘Keep Austin Wired’. Austin has been developing well economically in recent years and has built up its own ‘Silicon Valley’, called ‘Silicon Hills’.

The number of seminars on communication from various angles has risen at the AAAS, and more and more people seem to agree that there is no information deficit. The issue of outreach is not as interesting as it was a few years ago. Today, there is more analysis of which factors cause various people and groups to resist absorbing facts.

Another of Mistra’s observations was that environmental issues now seem to be integrated into almost all research areas, instead of being individual issues. Many presentations from both researchers and industrial representatives had the same point of departure: the challenge of feeding and looking after a global population of nine and a half billion people.

A speaker with a Mistra connection was found in the programme: Anders Hagfeldt from Mistra’s former Ångström Solar Centre programme. He spoke about solar cells made of perovskite materials, which have attracted a great deal of attention in the past few years.

The conference’s penultimate plenary lecture was held by Katharine Hayhoe, a climate researcher from Texas Tech University. In her brilliant lecture, she posed the question ‘What happens when facts are not enough?’ Hayhoe believes that it is possible to change people’s sometimes rigid views on climate change.

The final speaker was former Vice President Joe Biden. Arriving straight from a trip to Munich, he initially seemed a little weary as he spoke about cancer research, to which he is highly committed. But after a while something happened. Leaning forward at the lectern, he focused his gaze, raised his voice and expressed great frustration regarding current US research policy. Biden was not the only person at the conference to express anxiety about the reduced block funding of research in the US.

There were many activities in Austin in that week in February, and at the weekend the Austin Marathon also took place.

Text: Malin Lindgren