Congress has proposed legislation to appoint a science laureate of the United States — a position designed to promote science education and research to the general public.
The bill was sponsored by Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX). Co-sponsors included three Democrats and three Republicans.
Operatives see a potentially smooth path for the bill. "Given its bipartisan nature, it could start moving forward pretty quickly," said Ryan Taylor, Senator Wicker's communications director. "At a time when our students are falling behind other countries in the scientific subjects, scientists should be engaged to help remedy that wrong for the good of the country."
During interviews at the World Science Festival, Kerri Miller asked scientists about the proposed position, and what value they think it could offer.
Brian Greene, co-founder of the World Science Festival and professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, said he was excited about the idea of a science laureate to expand the public's access to the field. The science laureate would "get people excited by the language, the ideas, the wonders, the concepts of science," he said.
"There are so many celebrations of other subjects in the world, in this country," Greene said. "We celebrate fashion week, we celebrate food, we have film festivals all over the place, literature festivals. When we started the World Science Festival back in 2008, we looked around and there was no public celebration of science on a national scale. That made no sense to us, which is what drove us to create the festival."
Dan Fagin, a science journalism professor and journalist at New York University, said he doesn't necessarily support, or even believe in, the idea of a science laureate.
"If it was up to me, I don't think I would have one science laureate," he said. "I think that's a little bit misleading. Then again, I don't think I would have a poet laureate either... because I think that's an artificial hierarchy, a kind of phony hierarchy, that shouldn't be."
It's a mistake to "elevate a towering figure" as the personification of science, Fagin said.
"Science, especially, it is a discipline of people, but it's a process of ideas," he said. "Of course all scientists are human beings, but scientific knowledge is not about people, it's about ideas, or specifically it's about testable ideas."
Stuart Firestein, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, said a science laureate who interpreted science for the public wouldn't be enough.
"We've developed an entire field of science journalism and science writing and so there are many interpreters and translators of science for the public and many of them do an extremely good job," he said. "But there's also something to be said for getting it sort of from the horse's mouth, for getting a little bit of an inside, not-so-translated version from a working scientist who nonetheless understands a responsibility in the public understanding and public accessibility to science."