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“If a Tree Falls in the Woods. . .”

By Anthony (Bud) Rock

Imagine a riddle beginning with the phrase, “If a scientist is hard at work and nobody hears about it . . .” The thought came to me following a recent dinner with friends where someone posed the question on the minds of many these days: Are we prepared for a disease like Ebola, and will science soon provide a vaccine or a cure? No one debated that the solution resides in the application of good science. At issue instead was concern about the capacities of scientists to secure the desperately needed answers in time to redress the disastrous trend—and no one could speculate with confidence.

The conversation caused me to contemplate the roles of our science centers and museums in tackling complex and timely issues. We are not science news institutions, per se, though we often build on topical issues to demonstrate the broader relevance of science in our lives. Our task is to educate our communities about critical topics through the lens of science and, at the same time, build confidence that scientists are hard at work in pursuit of answers. Oh, and the message needs to be positive, inspirational, and, better yet, fun!

An alternative approach to tackling public concerns directly is to embed them in broader, positive presentations concerning the pathways to scientific discovery and solutions. A good example of this approach is in the scientific message that underlies the very inspiring 100 Resilient Cities Project (100RC). Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the project is dedicated to helping cities worldwide become more resilient. 100RC defines resilience as “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.” The first selected cities are already developing strategies that rely upon the work of scientists to address challenges including public health issues, natural disasters, and food security.

100RC defines the first pillar of resilience as “constant learning” on the part of decision makers and the general public alike. Implicit in this project’s message is the need for the public to gain trust and confidence in the work that scientists are doing to help our communities continuously adapt to change. This is the same positive message that science centers and museums strive to convey. So, if a scientist is hard at work and no one hears about it . . . well, then we have more work to do.

Anthony (Bud) Rock is ASTC’s president and CEO.